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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's government is rushing to try to restart two nuclear reactors, idled after the Fukushima crisis, by next month out of what experts say is a fear that surviving a total shutdown would make it hard to convince the public that atomic energy is vital.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three cabinet ministers are to meet for a third time on Friday to discuss the possible restarts of the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co's Ohi plant in Fukui, western Japan - a region dubbed the "nuclear arcade" for the string of atomic plants that dot its coast.
Trade minister Yukio Edano, who holds the energy portfolio, could travel to Fukui as early as Sunday to seek local approval for the restarts, Japanese media said.
If approved, the restarts would be the first since a huge earthquake and tsunami triggered the radiation crisis at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima plant a year ago, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate.
Concern about a power crunch when electricity demand peaks in the summer has been set against public fears about safety since Fukushima, the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years.
Nuclear power, long advertised as safe and cheap, provided almost 30 percent of Japan's electricity before the crisis but now all but one of Japan's 54 reactors are off-line, mainly for maintenance. The last reactor will shut down on May 5.
"They want to avoid setting a precedent of the country operating without nuclear power because it will create a huge barrier in terms of restarts," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus.
"People will question why we need it," he said.
The government is crafting a new energy mix formula, with options for atomic power ranging from zero to 35 percent of electricity by 2030 against an earlier target of more than half.
Whether the reactor restarts can go ahead before the last reactor shuts down, however, remains in doubt.
Edano has said he wants to gain understanding from communities near the reactors, including those such as Shiga and Kyoto prefectures which are not hosts to atomic plants but are close enough to be at risk of radiation from a big accident.
On Thursday, however, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura underscored there was no legal requirement for local communities to sign off on the restarts.
"However, we will go to the localities to explain new (safety) standards," he told reporters.
On Thursday, Noda and the three ministers met and reviewed safety principles drafted by the trade ministry based on the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster, Edano said.
On Friday they will discuss whether the Ohi reactors meet those principles, he said, and also plan to ask Kansai Electric to give a detailed report on its longer terms safety steps.
The two Ohi reactors have already passed initial computer-simulated stress tests, but the head of Japan's Nuclear Safety Commission, Haruki Madarame, has said that was not enough.
Local governments, including Fukui Prefectural Governor Issei Nishikawa, have called for provisional safety guidelines as one of the requirements for restarts.
Nishikawa, however, has said he wants to see the results of a government-sponsored probe of the Fukushima crisis. The report is not due out until summer.
Hasty moves to restart idle reactors could prompt a backlash against an already unpopular government and ruling party ahead of an election that could come later this year.
Toru Hashimoto, the popular mayor of the western city of Osaka and head of a new party keen to break into national politics, has adopted an anti-nuclear stance.
"If they do this (rush the restarts), it just gives him a higher wave to ride into what may be an election this summer," said Andrew DeWit, a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo who studies energy policy. No vote for parliament's lower house is mandated until 2013 but speculation is rife that Noda may call a snap election over tax reform.
Last summer, the government imposed power restrictions on some large corporate users, ordering them to cut usage by 15 percent. To deal with the shortage, manufacturers operated plants at night and on the weekends. Companies used in-house generators and cut down on use of air conditioners and lights.
Japan's biggest business lobby, Keidanren, has complained about the cost of such measures, as well as expressed worries that higher future electricity costs could force companies to move overseas, further "hollowing out" the economy.
Additional reporting by Osamu Tsukimori; Editing by Paul Tait and Mark Bendeich