* Country has been inching back towards nuclear power
* But number of reactors seen starting in next few yrs has dropped
* Legal challenges from public are major hurdle for utilities (Updates graphic link)
By Kentaro Hamada and Aaron Sheldrick
TOKYO, Sept 1 (Reuters) - The number of Japanese nuclear reactors likely to restart in the next few years has halved, hit by legal challenges and worries about meeting tougher safety standards imposed in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, a Reuters analysis shows.
The country has been inching back to nuclear energy, turning on its first reactor in mid-August after a two-year blackout, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and many in industry looking to cut fuel bills despite widespread public opposition to atomic power.
But the analysis shows that of the other 42 operable reactors remaining in the country, just seven are likely to be turned on in the next few years, down from the 14 predicted in a similar survey last year.
The findings are based on reactor inspection data from industry watchdog the Nuclear Regulation Authority, court rulings and interviews with local authorities, utilities and energy experts. They also show that nine reactors are unlikely to ever restart and that the fate of the remaining 26 looks uncertain.
“Four-and-a-half years after the events started unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi, the Japanese government, the nuclear utilities and the NRA have not succeeded in overcoming complete planning insecurity for investors. The outlook for restarts is as cloudy as ever,” said Mycle Schneider, an independent energy consultant in Paris.
Japan’s utilities have been burning liquefied natural gas (LNG) in record quantities to make up for lost nuclear capacity, bolstering international markets for the fuel LNG-AS.
Legal challenges from local residents have hit all atomic plants, with the country’s most nuclear-reliant utility Kansai Electric Power issued with court rulings preventing the restart of four reactors despite two of them already receiving NRA approval to switch on.
Kansai has appealed the judgements but the court cases may take years to resolve if the rulings are not overturned on the first appeal.
Tougher safety standards and stricter implementation of rules since Fukushima have also been hitting restarts. Japan Atomic Power has been battling a regulatory ruling that one of its reactors sits above an active fault, meaning it must be decommissioned.
And highlighting the pitfalls of rebooting the industry, Kyushu Electric was forced to slow the ramp up of power from its Sendai No. 1 reactor after it restarted around mid-August due to problems with pumping equipment. Engineers warn that firing up reactors that have been offline for prolonged periods could be fraught with such troubles.
But offering some hope to nuclear operators, some aging units may be given a new lease of life as the NRA considers applications for operation beyond the standard 40 years.
Two Kansai units, both around 40 years old, are being vetted for extensions. The regulator has said it would be very strict on granting permission, but Kansai is pushing for acceptance of less costly measures on fireproofing thousands of kilometres of wiring.
Additional reporting by Kira Wang and Osamu Tsukimori; Editing by Joseph Radford