By Sophie Knight and Maki Shiraki
TOKYO (Reuters) - More than two and a half years after meltdowns at the Fukushima power plant effectively shut down Japan's nuclear industry, one of the makers of the wrecked reactors is determined to breathe new life into the business through a major contract in Britain.
Without a single reactor order since a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered disaster at the plant in 2011, Toshiba Corp chief executive Hisao Tanaka is chasing a deal by the end of this year that would give the company a majority stake in a project to build a new British nuclear plant.
If Tanaka succeeds in taking control of the nuclear consortium NuGen, a Japan Inc push backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government to promote nuclear know-how overseas could provide a launch pad for Toshiba to meet its target of 29 new nuclear reactor orders by March 2018.
Even as all of Japan's domestic nuclear plants remain off-line, Tanaka said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday that he was optimistic the post-Fukushima chill over the nuclear industry is thawing, and that technology contained in Toshiba's Westinghouse division will remain a cornerstone of the industrial conglomerate's business.
"We felt a backlash against nuclear power for a while, but I think that it's gradually being reassessed," he said. "The pace (of orders) has dropped but when you look around the world the importance of nuclear power has increased."
Winning a majority stake in NuGen would give Toshiba a foothold in pro-nuclear Britain, where Hitachi Ltd, Japan's other nuclear technology supplier, acquired the Horizon nuclear project last year and is planning to build two to three nuclear power plants.
Spanish utility Iberdrola SA is in talks to sell its 50 percent stake in NuGen, according to a source with knowledge of the matter. Taking a majority stake would require Westinghouse to buy shares both from Iberdrola and from joint NuGen shareholder GDF Suez.
JAPAN SAFETY DEBATE
Anti-nuclear sentiment spread across the world after the Fukushima accident, the worst atomic accident since Chernobyl in 1986, with Germany deciding to pull out of nuclear power entirely and France and Belgium committing to reducing their dependence on it.
Toshiba's revenue from maintaining domestic power plants has likely suffered with Japan's remaining 50 nuclear reactors now offline amid continuing debate about the industry's safety.
The company said revenue in its nuclear business had made up roughly 9 percent of total revenue in the past two to three years, but would not disclose figures for the years before the Fukushima crisis. It does not break down nuclear sales as part of its energy generation business in its earnings reports.
Against roughly 520 billion yen ($5.35 billion) for 2012, based on Reuters' calculations, Toshiba's official target is to make 630 billion yen in sales by March 2015 and secure an additional 29 reactor orders by 2018.
"Nuclear power is being reassessed little by little," Tanaka said. "Not just in the U.S. but also in the UK, which has promoted it from the beginning. And that's where we're trying to enter now, as well as Finland, the Czech Republic and so on."
With Westinghouse, Toshiba is also currently bidding for reactor orders in Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, while also seeking contracts in India, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.
Prime Minister Abe has been actively promoting Japanese nuclear power overseas. He signed bilateral nuclear cooperation pacts with the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in May and agreed to work with the Czech prime minister and other Eastern European leaders on nuclear power when he visited the region in June.
He has also pledged to conclude a pact soon with India, whose prime minister met with a Westinghouse executive in September, according to Tanaka.
The cost of replacing the energy Japan's off-line nuclear plants would have produced with expensive imported fuels to generate power provides Abe's government with a substantial incentive to restart reactors.
Yet the majority of the Japanese public remain opposed as the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant shows no sign of ending. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Asahi newspaper in June, some 59 percent of the Japanese public is opposed to nuclear power.
The latest leak from tanks at the plant containing contaminated water was announced on Thursday by operator Tokyo Electric Power Co Inc.
Toshiba has said it is committed to maintenance at the Fukushima plant, but a system it installed to treat contaminated water from the damaged reactors, known as the Advanced Liquid Processing System, is still not running a year after it was introduced due to glitches.
Tanaka said that there were no problems with the system itself. Its progress was stymied by the introduction of ever-stricter regulations from Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority, he said.
"If we had got it running last September (2012) then there's a chance that these contaminated water issues wouldn't have occurred."
($1 = 97.2700 Japanese yen)
(Additional reporting by Reiji Murai; Editing by Edmund Klamann and Kenneth Maxwell)