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TOKYO, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Japan will fast-track the restart of some nuclear reactors, the regulator said on Wednesday, potentially breaking a logjam that has kept the country without nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
Making a priority list for a few nuclear plants will move them forward in an approval process that has become bogged down in laborious safety checks and paperwork.
It remains unclear when any of Japan's 48 reactors could come back on-line, but fast-tracking the process is good news for the nuclear industry, which had been hoping to begin the restarts by the middle of this year.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), an independent body created in 2012, said it will craft a priority list of plants that meet its earthquake and tsunami criteria as early as next month, selecting a few to expedite from six pressurised water reactors run by Kansai Electric Power Co, Kyushu Electric Power, Hokkaido Electric Power and Shikoku Electric Power.
Japan's nuclear shutdown has forced the resource-poor nation to import costly fossil fuel, pushing the economy into a record 18 months of trade deficits.
The regulator began vetting restart applications from eight utilities last July under new, tougher guidelines. The process has already run over the initially expected six months, with no end in sight. The NRA has come under fire from utilities and Japan's biggest corporations for the slow pace in approving restarts.
Regulatory officials will compile reports on a handful of prioritised plants, which will then be handed off for public comment for an additional four weeks. The NRA will also hold townhall meetings in local communities where plants are based to field any scientific and technical questions.
Trade and industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi said this week the regulator should give some sort of "outlook" for the restart process so plant operators can plan their business accordingly. Hokkaido Electric, which is seeking to restart its 3-reactor Tomari plant, has said it is considering additional rate hikes to offset high fuel costs.
NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka said comments by Motegi or pressure from utilities did not affect decisions by the regulator. "This has absolutely no impact on our review," he said. "There is no chance we will be swayed." (Reporting by Mari Saito and Kentaro Hamada; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)