Japanese nuclear plant clears safety hurdle

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Japanese nuclear plant clears safety hurdle
Protesters shout slogans against a Japanese nuclear plant which won preliminary approval for meeting stringent post-Fukushima safety requirements, near the Diet building in Tokyo, Wednesday, July 16, 2014. The Nuclear Regulation Authority gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a report that concludes that two reactors at Sendai Nuclear Power Station have complied with the new regulations and are capable of avoiding disasters such as the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdowns, even if the plant faces equally harsh conditions. The huge banner reads: "Decommission all the nuclear plants." (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Anti-nuclear demonstrators stage a rally in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) in Tokyo on September 10, 2014. Japan's nuclear watchdog gave the greenlight for two reactors to restart, one year after the energy-poor country shut down the last unit in the aftermath of the Fukushima crisis. AFP PHOTO / KAZUHIRO NOGI (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)
An anti-nuclear demonstrator stages a rally in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) in Tokyo on September 10, 2014. Japan's nuclear watchdog gave the greenlight for two reactors to restart, one year after the energy-poor country shut down the last unit in the aftermath of the Fukushima crisis. AFP PHOTO / KAZUHIRO NOGI (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)
OKUMA, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 07: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi (C) inspects the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on September 7, 2014 in Okuma, Fukushima, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Anti-nuclear demonstrators stage a rally in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) in Tokyo on September 10, 2014. Japan's nuclear watchdog gave the greenlight for two reactors to restart, one year after the energy-poor country shut down the last unit in the aftermath of the Fukushima crisis. AFP PHOTO / KAZUHIRO NOGI (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly appointed Environment Minister and State Minister for the Nuclear Emergency Preparedness Yoshio Mochizuki speaks during a press conference at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014. Abe picked five women for his Cabinet on Wednesday, matching the past record and sending the strongest message yet about his determination to revive the economy by getting women on board as workers and leaders. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
Japan's Trade and Economy Minister Yuko Obuchi speaks in front of employees as she visits Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, Japan Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy wearing a yellow helmet and a mask inspects the central control room for the Unit One and Unit Two reactors of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, operated by Japan's Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. Kennedy toured the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant for about three hours Wednesday. (AP Photo/Toru Yamanaka, Pool)
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By MARI YAMAGUCHI

TOKYO (AP) - A nuclear power plant in southern Japan won regulators' approval Wednesday under new safety standards imposed after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, a key step toward becoming the first to restart under the tighter rules.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority unanimously approved an inspection report for the Sendai Nuclear Power Station's two reactors. It concluded that the reactors complied with new regulations designed to avoid major damage during disasters such as the massive earthquake and tsunami that caused meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

The plant's safety approval and its expected restart are a big boost for Japan's nuclear industry. All of the country's 48 remaining reactors have been offline since the 2011 disaster for safety checks and repairs, except for two that briefly operated under the previous safety standards.

The approval of the inspection report followed a 30-day review in which regulators read about 17,000 questions and comments from the public and experts, reflecting the huge public interest in the reactors' safety and possible restart.

The authority, however, has no say over a restart of the plant, and it will probably be several months before Sendai's reactors are back online. The plant, which is operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co., still faces an on-site operational inspection and must obtain the consent of local authorities.

Kyushu Electric has upgraded the plant's seismic resistance and is tripling the height of its tsunami seawall to 15 meters (50 feet). It also has evaluated newly added risks including terrorist attacks, airplane strikes and volcanic explosions.

But opponents say the approval is premature because Kyushu Electric can wait two years to implement some key safety measures, such as filters on vents to reduce radiation leaks, and because nearby communities still lack adequate evacuation plans.

They worry in particular about the region's volcanic activity since the plant is surrounded by at least five active volcanoes. Nuclear Regulation Authority Commissioner Shunichi Tanaka said a catastrophic eruption is unlikely before the end of the reactors' functional lifespan in about 30 years.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he will put all reactors deemed safe back online, reversing a nuclear phase-out policy adopted by the previous government.

Abe's government has been pushing for nuclear plant restarts despite strong public opposition, saying their shutdown hurts Japan's economy.

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