TOKYO - Japan's nuclear regulator was on Wednesday expected to approve the restarting of two atomic reactors, in a move likely to ignite fresh protest over returning to the technology more than three years after the Fukushima crisis.
Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) officials were to make public their safety review of the Sendai nuclear plant in southern Japan, which would technically give its operator the green light to switch on the reactors - the first since Japan ushered in stricter safety guidelines last year.
But Tokyo has agreed to a month-long public consultation period and winning agreement from local officials before giving a final nod, so an actual restart is unlikely before the autumn.
The review comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tries to convince a wary public that Japan needs to return to an energy source which once supplied more than a quarter of its power, a push backed by business groups.
The country's nuclear reactors were switched off after the March 2011 quake-tsunami disaster triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the worst atomic accident since Chernobyl.
Mr Abe has seen regular protests in front of his office over plans to restart reactors deemed safe by the nuclear agency.
The regulator's clearance for the Sendai plant, operated by Kyushu Electric, comes after at least one local assembly adopted a resolution for the site to be decommissioned, and just days after the election of an anti-nuclear politician underscored opposition to the plans.
Former parliamentarian Taizo Mikazuki, 43, squeaked out a Sunday election win to become governor of Shiga prefecture, beating out a candidate backed by Mr Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
The prefecture in western Japan borders on Fukui prefecture, host to 13 idled reactors, and where the battle over nuclear could see its biggest fight.
Mr Mikazuki has demanded that the central government get his approval before any reactor restarts over the border in Fukui.
Worries about whether Japan's nuclear plants could withstand another disaster came into focus at the weekend as an earthquake struck near the crippled Fukushima nuclear site.
No major damage was reported, but seismologists said the quake was an aftershock of the tremor that sparked 2011's deadly tsunami, and warned of more to come.
A 9.0-magnitude earthquake in March 2011 saw a monster tsunami slam into Japan's Pacific coastline, leaving about 18,000 dead or still missing.
The huge waves swamped the Fukushima plant, sending reactors into meltdown and spewing radioactivity across the adjacent farming region.
No one died as a direct result of the atomic accident, but experts warn that decommissioning of the plant could take decades and many evacuated residents may never be able to return to their homes in the shadow of the plant.