By Mari Saito and Kentaro Hamada
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan put two reactors on a shortlist for a final round of safety checks on Thursday, moving a step closer to a revival of the country's nuclear industry, three years after the Fukushima disaster led to the shutdown of all plants.
No timing for a potential restart was decided and the next stage of checks incorporates a period of public hearings, which may be a fraught process given widespread skepticism nationally about a return to nuclear power.
Two days after the third anniversary of the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear station, Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) placed two reactors operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co on a list for priority screening at a meeting of officials reviewing restart applications.
Kyushu Electric's Sendai reactors are located about 980 kilometers (600 miles) southwest of Tokyo. The utility is one of the most reliant of Japan's regional electricity monopolies on nuclear power, which supplied about a third of Japan's electricity before Fukushima.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a strong supporter of nuclear power, finalized a mid-term energy plan last month, which embraces nuclear power and calls for the restart of reactors deemed safe by regulators, overturning the previous administration's plan to eventually mothball all units.
"The NRA checks if standards are met and if it concludes they have been, the government would like to restart (reactors)," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said after the decision. "We want the NRA to properly inspect the plants."
Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi station had three reactor meltdowns after a devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, sending a massive radioactive plume into the air and ocean.
In the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, thousands were forced to flee their homes and much of the area around the Fukushima plant, about 220 kilometers north of Tokyo, remains a no-go zone due to high levels of radiation.
Cleaning up Fukushima is expected to take decades and cost at least 11 trillion yen ($108 billion).
The disaster led to the eventual shutdown of all reactors, forcing utilities to spend billions of dollars on expensive fossil fuels to generate electricity. Japan has 48 operable nuclear reactors.
LOCAL SUPPORT, NATIONAL OPPOSITION
Regulators will now draft an official approval document for the shutdown Sendai reactors, with input from local communities, which may take as long as four weeks. Further inspections and maintenance work will be required before restarting a plant.
Once the regulator signs off on safety the assent of local authorities to turn on the reactors will be sought.
While there is support for a restart among communities close to Sendai, which rely on the station for jobs and subsidies, there is widespread opposition further afield.
Restarting the Sendai reactors faces relatively little opposition compared to other areas, a recent survey by Asahi of local township leaders across the nation showed.
The mayor of Satsuma Sendai City said on Thursday a big hurdle had been cleared and asked the Kyushu utility to do all it can to ensure safety at the plant, Jiji news reported.
A poll released on Monday by national broadcaster NHK Television showed anti-nuclear sentiment nationwide is up 10 percentage points from two years ago.
Of those surveyed 76 percent were either opposed to nuclear power or wanted Japan to curtail its reliance on the energy source, NHK said. Other polls have shown similar results.
A small group of anti-nuclear protesters stood in the rain outside the regulators' office on Thursday, while a handful raised their voice in protest inside when NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka gave the greenlight for screenings the Sendai reactors.
($1 = 102.72 Japanese Yen)
(Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Michael Perry)