Japan nuclear rules to be world's best: watchdog

Japan will have one of the world's best atomic power safety regimes, the new head of the industry's watchdog pledged Thursday, but he said the full restart of the nation's nuclear plants is some way off.

Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said new and tougher technical standards will come into force on Monday, paving the way for nuclear operators to restart their reactors.

Utilities are gearing up to request that the authority review their facilities, most of which have sat idle since going offline for inspections in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.

"I think we have, as far as I know, the best standards or close to the best," Tanaka told foreign journalists in Tokyo.

But, he said, just meeting the new technical requirements will not be enough to get reactors switched back on.

"The actual resumption of nuclear reactors will come only after operators and political leaders gain the understanding of the host communities," Tanaka said.

The new standards require equipment upgrades and more comprehensive measures to prevent or contain severe incidents like meltdowns or fires, as well as to protect against events such as earthquakes, tsunami and terrorist attacks.

Only two of Japan's 50 nuclear reactors are operating, while the rest remained shuttered because of widespread public opposition to a once-trusted technology.

Reactors at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant went into meltdown after cooling systems were swamped by a huge tsunami in March 2011.

The worst nuclear accident in a generation forced tens of thousands of people who lived around the plant to evacuate their homes. Some may never return.

Pro-business Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly expressed his wish to restart reactors, saying atomic energy is a crucial source of power for the world's third largest economy.

Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power said this week it would be asking the regulatory authority to approve two reactors at Niigata, the world's largest nuclear plant. Other operators are expected to follow suit.

Tanaka said he hoped the strict new standards would eventually foster a real safety culture among utilities, who sometimes opt for complying with only the bare legal minimum.

"A culture of safety cannot be inculcated by regulations. But this set of new standards demands" measures significantly stricter than those of previous times, Tanaka said.

"I think a safety culture will grow" as the standards are implemented, he said.