* Kansai’s Takahama No. 3, No. 4 clear initial regulatory hurdle
* Kansai hopes to raise rates for second time from April
* Utility warns of further losses without rate hike (Adds regulator comments, share price)
By Kentaro Hamada and Yoshiyuki Osada
TOKYO/OSAKA, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Japan’s nuclear regulator gave an initial safety clearance on Wednesday to two reactors operated by Kansai Electric Power, the second approval under new rules introduced after the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
Kansai, Japan’s most nuclear-reliant utility that provides power to the country’s second biggest metropolitan area, also said it hoped to hike electricity rates for a second time from April, stating that its corporate survival was “at risk.”
“At current rates, we believe that we will not be able to avoid a loss in fiscal year 2014 and 2015,” said Kansai Electric President Makoto Yagi at a news briefing in Osaka on Wednesday. The utility has lost almost $5 billion since Fukushima.
All 48 of Japan’s nuclear reactors were gradually taken offline after the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant following an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, that set off the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Nuclear operators have turned to more expensive fossil fuels to generate electricity, pushing many into a sustained period of losses.
A majority of Japan’s public remains opposed to atomic power and memories of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown are raw for many evacuees still living in temporary housing and unlikely to return to their homes.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority’s (NRA) draft safety approval of Kansai’s Takahama No. 3 and No. 4 reactors will now open for a month-long public comment period.
The Takahama plant uses plutonium mixed oxide fuel, the use of which has been controversial.
“I am not saying that (the plant) is safe, or that safety was confirmed or that we determined that it is not safe. Rather, we completed an evaluation into whether it meets the necessary requirements to operate,” NRA chairman Shuichi Tanaka said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government wants to restart plants that pass the regulator’s checks. The election win for Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner on Sunday gives the government more clout to push its reflationary policies and restart reactors.
Kansai will be the second utility to receive regulatory clearance to restart after Kyushu Electric Power’s Sendai plant got an approval earlier this year.
There remains no timetable for restarts, but the Sendai plant is widely expected to resume operations early next year.
Shares in Kansai Electric gained 1.9 percent on Wednesday, compared to 0.4 percent rise for the Nikkei average. ($1 = 117.15 yen) (Writing by Mari Saito; Editing by Aaron Sheldrick and Himani Sarkar)