TOKYO, July 3 (Reuters) - Japanese government officials no longer expect the world's biggest nuclear plant to restart this year, sources said, a delay which deals a blow to turnaround plans for operator Tokyo Electric Power.
Starting the Kashiwazaki Kariwa facility, 300 km (180 miles) northwest of Tokyo, is a pivotal part of Tokyo Electric's (Tepco) attempts to shore up its finances three years after its Fukushima site suffered three nuclear meltdowns.
The company had slated the restart of two reactors at Kashiwazaki for this month, but critics have long said that goal was unrealistic and four sources with direct knowledge of the matter said it would be postponed. One source said the timetable could be pushed back by a year.
"It will take some time for Kashiwazaki, it will be impossible to restart it this fiscal year," the source told Reuters. Japan's business year started in April.
Two of the sources also said the government has told the utility to avoid hiking electricity charges, further pressuring the firm which last year promised lenders rate hikes or reactor restarts to receive fresh financial support.
In its turnaround plan announced in January, Tepco warned it may have to consider boosting electricity rates as early as autumn if it could not reopen Kashiwazaki.
Tepco bounced back to a net profit in the last fiscal year thanks to aggressive cost cuts and government assistance after it posted more than $27 billion in losses for three straight years following the Fukushima disaster. But it has said the company would save $1 billion a month in fuel costs if all seven reactors at Kashiwazaki were operating.
Forced to burn more fossil fuels with all 48 of Japan's nuclear reactors offline, power generators have been saddled with growing bills for imports of commodities such as thermal coal and liquefied natural gas.
The newly established Nuclear Regulation Authority is vetting restart applications from nine utilities. The watchdog is in the final stages of assessing Kyushu Electric Power's Sendai plant, but has fallen far behind schedule in screening other nuclear reactors.
A delay in restarts has forced Kyushu Electric and Hokkaido Electric Power to apply for bailouts from the state-backed Development Bank of Japan.
Tepco vice president Hiroshi Yamaguchi told shareholders in June that the company could not comment on the timing of the Kashiwazaki restart. ($1 = 101.87 Japanese Yen)
(Reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto; Editing by Joseph Radford)