TOKYO, July 16 (Reuters) - A nuclear plant in southern Japan cleared an initial safety hurdle on Wednesday which could see it become the first nuclear facility to restart after the industry was idled by the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
With Japan in its first summer without nuclear power in four decades, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to restart the country's 48 nuclear reactors, as a prolonged shutdown forces the nation to rely on expensive fossil fuel imports.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority gave preliminary safety approval for Kyushu Electric Co's Sendai plant, accepting its upgraded design and safety features.
This is expected to lead to the nuclear station's restart by this autumn, September-November.
Japan's reactors were gradually taken offline, with the last one shutting down last year, after a massive earthquake and tsunami crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi plant in March 2011, triggering the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
The Fukushima disaster shook public confidence in atomic power. The NRA, an independent watchdog set up in 2012, has been vetting restart applications for plants for over a year.
Sendai's approval comes as a relief for Kyushu Electric, which has posted three years of losses and asked for a bailout by a state-backed bank. The utility expects to spend more than $3 billion to upgrade facilities at its two nuclear plants in southern Japan.
The NRA decision will also help the broader nuclear industry. The approval process for the five other plants with similar pressurised-water reactors will likely go more quickly, said NRA director Tomoya Ichimura. Nine of Japan's electric utilities have applied to restart 19 reactors.
A restart of the Sendai plant would also be a boost for Abe.
The blackout of Japan's nuclear industry, which supplied about one-third of Japan's electricity before Fukushima, has led to rising electricity rates for residents and businesses and has contributed to a record string of 23 months of trade deficits. (Editing by William Mallard and Michael Perry)