First full post-disaster reactor restart in Japan

TOKYO - Japan on Wednesday neared the first full resumption of commercial operations of an atomic reactor since the March 11 quake and tsunami sparked the Fukushima nuclear accident.

Currently only 15 of Japan's 54 reactors are operating.

Most of the rest are undergoing safety checks, and many host communities have been reluctant to approve their restarts as anti-nuclear sentiment has grown.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has said he would like to phase out nuclear power in the long term, but for now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) wants to resume reactor operations amid a summer-time power crunch.

Atomic power met about one third of Japan's energy needs before the quake disaster, and business groups have warned that power shortages spell a serious threat to the world's number three economy.

One reactor on the northern island of Hokkaido, the Tomari plant's number three unit, has officially been in a test phase, although it has been running for months and producing electricity at full capacity.

Hokkaido's Governor Harumi Takahashi, after local debate on the plant's safety, said Wednesday she has "no objection" to the government declaring the safety test complete and allowing a return to full operations.

Once she formally relays this message, METI was expected to issue the safety certificate as early as Wednesday, which would allow operator Hokkaido Electric Power Co. to officially resume commercial operations.

"The company is prepared to resume commercial operations of reactor No. 3 immediately, on the same day the certificate is issued," a HEPCO spokesman told AFP following the governor's announcement.

A regular inspection of the reactor was launched in January, and the unit was restarted in a so-called adjustment operation on March 7, days before the earthquake, and has been running ever since.

METI's nuclear watchdog agency said additional safety tests that followed the quake were completed last week.