TOKYO -- Japan is moving a step closer to restarting nuclear reactors as utilities are set to ask for safety inspections at their idled reactors, the clearest sign of a return to nuclear energy nearly two and a half years after the Fukushima disaster.
With all but two of its 50 reactors off line since the crisis, Japan has been without nuclear energy that once supplied about a third of its power.
Four of nine Japanese nuclear plant operators -- supplying the regions of Hokkaido, Kansai, Shikoku and Kyushu -- will apply for inspections by the Nuclear Regulation Authority for 10 reactors at five plants Monday, when new safety requirements take effect. Applications for two more reactors are expected later in the week.
Reactors that pass the stricter rules will be allowed to reopen possibly early next year, with each inspection expected to take several months. Critics say the rules have loopholes, including grace periods for some safety equipment.
Hit by soaring gas and oil costs to run conventional power plants to make up for the shortfall, Japanese utility companies have desperately sought to put their reactors back online.
Nearly all the utilities owning nuclear power plants reported huge losses last fiscal year due to higher costs for fuel imports. Hokkaido Electric Power Co., for example, said it has been hit with additional daily fuel costs of 600 million yen ($6 million) to make up for three idled reactors. Nuclear operators have requested rate hikes or plan to do so.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed for restarts since taking office in December, freezing the previous government's nuclear phase-out plan. Resumption of nuclear power plants is part of his ruling party's campaign platform in parliamentary elections in two weeks.
New rules for the first time require plants to guard against radiation leaks in the case of severe accidents, install emergency command centers and enact anti-terrorist measures. Operators are required to upgrade protection for tsunamis and earthquakes, as well as tornadoes and aviation accidents.
Safety was previously left up to the operators, relying on their self-interest in protecting their investments as an incentive for implementing adequate measures. Tokyo Electric Power Co. came under fire for underestimating the risk of a tsunami and building a seawall that was less than half the height of the wave that hit Fukushima Dai-ichi and caused multiple meltdowns and massive radiation leaks. About 160,000 evacuees still cannot return home.
"We decided to apply because we're confident about the safety measures we've taken," said Shota Okada, a spokesman at Hokkaido Electric Power Co., filing for the triple-reactor Tomari plant. "We'll do everything to accommodate a smooth inspection process."
Critics say the requirements have loopholes that make things easier for operators, including a five-year grace period -- given to reactors known as PWRs that come with larger containment chambers considered less likely to suffer from pressure buildup than ones like those ravaged at Fukushima -- for taking some mandated steps. This means half of the 48 reactors that use a pressurized water system could operate without the features for up to five years.
All 10 reactors set for inspections are PWRs, and filtered vents and command centers are reportedly still under way at many of them.
The approvals are aimed at resuming reactor operations even though nearby communities lag in enacting needed emergency and evacuation procedures, and the restarts will cause more nuclear waste, plutonium stockpiles and other safety and environmental risks, said a group of experts headed by Hosei University sociologist Harutoshi Funabashi.
The critics say running nuclear plants will eventually become a financial burden, as safety upgrades under the new requirements add up and the cost of decommissioning aging reactors and waste cleanup jump. Even initial safety upgrades are estimated to exceed a combined total of 1 trillion yen ($10 billion).
TEPCO, struggling with huge compensation and disaster cleanup costs, wanted to apply to restart two reactors in Niigata, central Japan, but was forced to postpone that amid local protests.
Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida on Friday accused TEPCO President Naomi Hirose of ignoring the local communities: "Money or safety, which is more important?"