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Japan may only be able to restart one-third of its nuclear reactors via Reuters

(Reuters) – Three years after the Fukushima disaster prompted the closure of all Japan’s nuclear reactors, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving to revive nuclear power as a core part of the energy mix, but many of those idled reactors will never come back online.

As few as a third, and at most about two-thirds, of the reactors will pass today’s more stringent safety checks and clear the other seismological, economic, logistical and political hurdles needed to restart, a Reuters analysis shows.

This means Japan is likely to remain heavily reliant on imported fuel to power the world’s third-largest economy, straining a trade balance that has been in the red for nearly two years. Electric utilities will face huge liabilities to decommission reactors and pay for fossil fuels.

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“A VERY GOOD GUESS”

Japan had 54 nuclear reactors supplying about 30 percent of the nation’s electricity before an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in 2011. The six reactors at that plant are shut forever, slated for decades-long decommissioning.

Of Japan’s remaining four dozen reactors, 14 will probably restart at some point, a further 17 are uncertain and 17 will probably never be switched back on, the analysis suggests. As a result, nuclear energy could remain below 10 percent of Japan’s power supply.

The Reuters analysis is based on questionnaires and interviews with more than a dozen experts and input from the 10 nuclear operators. It takes into account such factors as the age of the plants, nearby seismic faults, additional work needed to address safety concerns, evacuation plans and local political opposition.

It’s impossible to say how many reactors will eventually pass safety inspections and win local approval to restart, but the Reuters analysis constitutes “a very good guess,” said Tatsujiro Suzuki, who stepped down this week as vice chairman of the government’s Japan Atomic Energy Commission.

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HARD SLOG AHEAD

The public has turned against nuclear power after watching Tokyo Electric (Tepco) struggle to deal with the Fukushima disaster. Recent polls put opposition to nuclear restarts at about two-to-one over support.

Abe’s government, which reversed the previous government’s policy of phasing out nuclear power by 2030, has set no timetable for restarting nuclear plants, saying the process is in the hands of a tough, more independent safety regulator set up after Fukushima.

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The outlook is less clear for about a third of the other 48 reactors. (For a factbox on Japan’s nuclear reactor restarts outlook click here )

Tepco’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant on the Japan Sea coast north of Tokyo, the world’s biggest nuclear station by output capacity, faces a politically fraught process. Although two of the 7 reactors look likely to restart on technical grounds, the head of the local prefecture has accused the operator of “institutionalized lying” and says Tepco cannot be trusted to operate another facility.

Chubu Electric Power Co’s Hamaoka plant on the Pacific coast 190 km southwest of Tokyo has been branded by one Japanese seismologist as the country’s most dangerous nuclear facility as it is located in an area where four major tectonic plates meet. Any restart would face significant opposition from local legislators even in Abe’s own party, and the prefectural governor supports a referendum on the issue.

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