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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's nuclear regulator on Wednesday approved the restart of a nuclear power station, the first step to reopening an industry that has been idle since the Fukushima disaster, as the government pushes for the permanent closure of older reactors.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said Kyushu Electric Power Co's Sendai plant in southwestern Japan had met safety requirements needed to restart, as the country nears the end of its first full year without nuclear power since 1966.
The two-reactor nuclear power station still needs to pass operational safety checks as well as win the approval of local authorities. If it clears those hurdles, it could restart in early 2015, media have said.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been keen to revive reactors that receive safety approval from the NRA to reduce Japan's reliance on expensive imported fuel. But public mistrust of nuclear power remains high after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986.
To help reassure the public, the government is pressing utilities to consider permanently closing the oldest of the country's 48 reactors, which face higher safety hurdles than the rest. The cull of those that are 40 years old or more could mean the decommissioning of a quarter of the reactors.
NRA chief Shunichi Tanaka said there would probably be reactors that did not meet the regulatory commission's standards and therefore would not be restarted.
The NRA does not have the power to order a decommissioning but the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the electric power companies, has begun asking them to make the tough decision on whether to take out the oldest facilities.
"I would like to proceed with smooth decommissioning (of some plants) and at the same time the restart of nuclear power stations certified as safe," Yuko Obuchi, the trade minister, said last week.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Wednesday the government would respect the regulator's decision and restart reactors that meet the NRA's tough standards.
The push for a reckoning on some plants is "clearly part of the strategy by the government and utilities to send a signal to the people of Japan that they are listening and taking into account the lessons of Fukushima," said prominent nuclear-power critic Arnie Gundersen, director of Fairewinds Energy Education.
"But it also reflects the challenge faced by utilities in finding the funds to bring older reactors to a standard that can pass NRA approval," Gunderson, a veteran U.S. nuclear engineer who turned against nuclear energy for safety reasons, said by email.
Under post-Fukushima rules, reactors are supposed to be decommissioned after 40 years. They can receive a 20-year extension but that is subject to more rigorous and costly safety regulations.
As many as two-thirds of Japan's 48 idled nuclear units may never return to operation because of the high costs, local opposition or seismic risks, while one-third will probably come back online eventually, a Reuters analysis showed this year.
The NRA gave the Sendai plant, about 1,000 km (600 miles) southwest of Tokyo, its safety clearance at a meeting on Wednesday after granting preliminary approval in July.
The approval certifies the upgraded design and safety features of the reactors but the units, which have been shut for more than three years, still have to undergo operational safety checks and be given the green light by local authorities.
The mayor of Satsumasendai, where the plant is located, and the governor of Kagoshima prefecture are in favor of reopening it, but residents remain concerned about evacuation plans. Activists have also said the regulator has done little to vet volcanic risks near the plant.
Utilities that want to extend the operating life of old reactors must submit detailed safety applications by July 2015, explaining how those facilities could be updated to meet the tough new safety standards.
However, the capacity of the ageing reactors is typically about half that of newer ones and the massive investment needed to bring them up to scratch may not make economic sense.
The government may ask the operators of 12 reactors that began operations before 1980 to decide by the end of the year whether to decommission them, media have reported.
Additional reporting by Aaron Sheldrick, Osamu Tsukimori and Kaori Kaneko; Writing by Mari Saito and James Topham; Editing by William Mallard and Alan Raybould