* Sendai nuclear facility may restart Sept-Nov
* Second nuclear plant safety review nears end
* Abe hopes for nuclear restarts if townships approve
* Protesters say safety concerns remain
(Adds Abe quote, 2nd nuclear plant review almost complete,
By Mari Saito and Kentaro Hamada
TOKYO, July 16 A nuclear plant in southern Japan
cleared an initial safety hurdle on Wednesday which could make
it the first nuclear facility to restart under tough new safety
regulations after the industry was idled by the 2011 Fukushima
With Japan in its first summer without nuclear power in four
decades, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to restart the
country's nuclear sector, 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. The new
safety standards involve safeguards against natural disasters,
like earthquakes and tsunami, and severe nuclear accidents.
The nuclear station could restart this autumn,
September-November, if it gains approval from the local
"This is a step forward. After we get the safety decision we
would like to move towards restarts with understanding from
local (townships)," said Abe during a visit to northern Japan on
Wednesday, Jiji said.
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 and exposed close ties between the powerful nuclear
industry and a regulator that was overseen by a government arm
that promoted the energy source.
The NRA, an independent watchdog set up in 2012, has been
vetting restart applications for plants for over a year.
Regulatory officials held 62 hearings and pored through
thousands of pages of technical papers to assess upgraded safety
features of the Sendai plant.
"I believe we were able to compile this review with
independence and transparency while maintaining neutrality. I
hope and wish that this (process) will be able to garner the
public's trust, but that is for the public to decide," said NRA
chairman Shunichi Tanaka.
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. It expects to spend more than $3 billion
to upgrade 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.
Japan's nuclear regulator said on Wednesday that its
assessment of Kansai Electric Power's Takahama nuclear
plant in western Japan was moving along smoothly and was nearly
complete on most issues.
A restart of the Sendai plant would 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.
CRITICS SAY SAFETY CONCERNS REMAIN
Activists and protesters crowded the regulatory commission's
open meeting on Wednesday, yelling at commissioners to vote
against the safety review and to halt restarts.
In approving the Sendai plant, 980 km (600 miles) southwest
of Tokyo near the southern tip of Japan's main islands, the NRA
is "ignoring unresolved safety issues and rising public
opposition," Greenpeace said in a statement.
The plant has "no effective evacuation plan for the
populations in the region, in particular for the elderly,
children and those in hospital, no functioning
emergency-response centre protected against radiation," the
group said, adding that there have not been sufficient
assessments of the risks from a nearby volcano.
But the green light for Sendai does not mean a quick return
for the nuclear industry. At most about two-thirds of Japan's 48
reactors will ever pass the regulator's stringent safety checks
and clear the other hurdles needed to restart, a Reuters
analysis showed in April.
The NRA will seek public comment on the decision for a month
before issuing its final decision. Kagoshima prefecture, home to
the Sendai plant, will hold townhall meetings in municipalities
closest to the facility to explain the restart.
Abe's government has said it will defer to local communities
to give final approval on reopening nuclear facilities.
The pro-nuclear governor of Kagoshima and the mayor of
Satsumasendai, the plant's host city, are likely to approve the
decision, but many nearby townships oppose a hasty restart.
More than half the 30,000 residents in Ichikikushikino, a
coastal town 5 km from Sendai, recently submitted a petition
opposing a restart of the plant, citing an unrealistic and
inefficient evacuation plan.
Opponents of nuclear power have so far gained little
political traction, but a candidate backed by Abe's party lost a
regional election on Sunday, partly over concerns about nuclear
(Additional reporting Aaron Sheldrick in Tokyo; Editing by
William Mallard and Michael Perry)