Japan's Kyushu Electric begins loading reactor fuel

TOKYO: Kyushu Electric Power Co started loading uranium fuel rods into a reactor on Tuesday, marking the first attempt to reboot Japan's nuclear industry in nearly two years after the sector was shutdown following the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has been pushing to bring some of the country's reactors back online, arguing they are key to economic growth, but opinion polls show a consistent majority oppose restarts, even though power bills have risen as utilities use expensive liquefied natural gas to generate power.

Loss-making Kyushu, the monopoly supplier on a southwestern island of the same name, says starting the No. 1 reactor at its Sendai nuclear station would help it reduce costs incurred from burning fossil fuels by about $60 million a month.

Fuel loading at the Sendai No. 1 reactor began a little after 0430 GMT on Tuesday, Kyushu said in statement.

The company will load 157 fuel assemblies into the 890-megawatt reactor by Friday, after which regulators will make final checks, spokesman Tomomitsu Sakata told Reuters.

Kyushu, which reported a fourth year of losses for the 12 months ended March, expects to begin starting up the reactor around mid-August, he added.

It also aims to have the 890-megawatt No. 2 reactor running by mid-October. With both reactors operating, Kyushu will save about 15 billion yen ($122.24 million) in fuel costs per month, Sakata said, adding that the savings would come mainly from using less oil and LNG.

The reactors will generate about 1.3 billion kilowatt hours of power per month when fully operational, Sakata said, without giving further details.

Kyushu Electric's shares closed 6.3 percent higher on Tuesday, tracking gains in other utilities.

Hurdles, however, remain before the Sendai nuclear plant starts running, including possible failure of equipment that have not been used for more than four years. Further restarts at other reactors also face obstacles, including strong opposition among local residents and authorities and court injunctions.

Kyushu was initially expecting to start up the Sendai plant in late July, but then it postponed the restart, saying operational checks of some facilities would end later than previously announced.

Opinion polls show consistent opposition to nuclear power among Japan's public, even after electricity bills rose in the wake of the disaster.

The closure of Japan's reactors caused tens of billions of dollars in losses at utilities as they resorted to importing more fossil fuels for power generation and paid for upgrades to meet tightened safety rules.