TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's nuclear watchdog formally approved a set of new safety requirements for atomic power plants Wednesday, paving the way for the reopening of facilities shut down since the Fukushima disaster in a move critics charge is too hasty.
The new requirements approved by the Nuclear Regulation Authority will take effect on July 8, when operators will be able to apply for inspections. If plants pass inspection, a process expected to take several months, they can reopen later this year or early next year.
All but two of Japan's 50 reactors have been offline since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered multiple meltdowns and massive radiation leaks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, about 250 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Tokyo. The plant, which barely runs on a precarious cooling system, has struggled with swelling contaminated water leaking out of broken reactors and other mishaps related to its makeshift operations.
Wednesday's decision setting the launch date for the new requirement comes nearly two weeks ahead of the legal deadline, prompting critics to suspect industrial and political pressure so that utilities can start the procedure for restart as soon as possible.
Many utilities have complained about soaring fuel costs to run conventional thermal power plants to make up for the shortfalls by idle nuclear plants. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pro-industry government has quickly reversed a nuclear phase-out plan since taking office last December, saying nuclear energy is key to Japan's economy.
The critics say the new requirements still have loopholes that make things easier for operators, including a five-year grace period on installing some mandated new equipment. They also said the approvals only concern resuming reactor operations, while nearby communities lag behind in enacting relevant emergency and evacuation procedures.
"Obviously it's a product of rushed work just to make it in time," Hiromitsu Ino, a nuclear expert and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. "If the new requirement is primarily to prevent another Fukushima disaster, they should have waited until they find more about what happened and learn all the lessons."
However, watchdog officials denied any outside influence.
The new requirements for the first time make compulsory that plants take steps to guard against radiation leaks in the case of severe accidents such as a core melt, install emergency command centers and enact anti-terrorist measures. Operators are also required to upgrade their protection against tsunamis and earthquakes.
Safety was previously left up to the operators, relying on their self-interest in their own investments to be incentive for implementing adequate measures. Fukushima Dai-ichi operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, came under harsh criticism for underestimating the tsunami risk and building a seawall that was less than half the height of one that hit the plant two years ago.
Four utilities are expected to file for safety checks for up to 12 reactors at six plants as soon as the new regulatory standard kicks in next month. They were expected to file even though command centers or upgraded tsunami measures haven't been completed, according to NHK, Japan's public television network.
Makoto Yagi, Kansai Electric Power Co. president and chairman of the powerful Federations of Electric Power Companies of Japan lobby, urged the watchdog to promptly finish the screenings to minimize the wait.
"We've been already making necessary preparations and plan to file for screening as soon as we're ready," he said in a statement. "We hope (the watchdog) efficiently makes screenings and a judgment for restart so that applications won't be on hold for a long time."
Yagi said last week he planned to apply for his company's two currently-running reactors at its Ohi plant and two others at nearby Takahama in western Japan for inspection.
Watchdog chairman Shunichi Tanaka said the endorsement marks a turning point for Japan's nuclear regulation, but it's only a start.
"I think we now have a framework that is up to international standards. What's more important is whether we can put the spirit in it during the inspection process," he said. The agency is currently conducting probes at several plants to review their past investigations that might have overlooked signs of potential problems.
Tanaka said the requirements need to be revised whenever necessary with the latest expertise from around the world. Japan needs to build a stronger safety culture so that utilities proactively make safety upgrades as a positive business option rather than a burden, he said.
"I hope someday operators see safety improvement is for their own interest and helps their business," he said.
Operators are also required to follow stricter rules about seismic faults at the plant and make sure faults running directly underneath reactors or other key facilities are not active.
Tanaka warned that Japan, one of the world's most earthquake prone country, is not a perfect place to build nuclear plants, and must have much stricter anti-quake and tsunami measures compared to many other countries including those in Europe.
The watchdog is currently conducting fault probes at several plants to revisit their past investigations that might have overlooked signs of potential problems.