A Japanese court has ordered two nuclear reactors in western Japan planned to restart later this year to stay offline, citing safety concerns.
The Fukui District Court issued an injunction ordering operator Kansai Electric Power not to restart the No 3 and No 4 reactors at its Takahama plant in Fukui prefecture, home to around a dozen reactors.
The reactors have met safety regulations set by Japan's nuclear regulator and were expected to be restarted at some point this year, so the ruling is a major blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to return to atomic energy four years after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, prompted by an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
The court criticised the Nuclear Regulation Authority's safety standards for being too lax even with stricter requirements imposed following the disaster and it said meeting the new standards does not guarantee the safety of the Takahama reactors.
The injunction had been sought by local residents who had argued that the restart plans underestimate earthquake risks, fail to meet tougher safety standards and lack credible evacuation measures.
They said a massive earthquake exceeding the facility's quake resistance standards could cause tremendous damage to the region, similar to the Fukushima crisis.
Kansai Electric said it would appeal the decision, but it will mean months and possibly years of delays and hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for the utility company, which is expected to report a fourth annual loss since Fukushima.
Prior to the Fukushima crisis nuclear power supplied nearly one-third of Japan's electricity, but in the wake of the crisis all 48 of its reactors were taken offline for safety checks. None have gone back online except for another two reactors in Fukui for a brief period in 2012 and 2013.
Japan's prime minister Abe sees restarting reactors as key to lifting the world's third-biggest economy out of two decades of lacklustre growth. However, the ruling places a question mark over Japan's updated nuclear safety standards.
The first two reactors, in southern Japan, scheduled to go back online have also received regulatory approval and are making final preparations toward a planned restart in the summer, but there is a separate injunction request already before a court which seeks to halt that.