U.S. natgas futures edge higher ahead of weekly EIA storage data15 minutes ago by Thomson Reuters

* Front month below Wednesday's 21-month high    * Weather outlooks remain mixed for May    * Nuclear power plant outages remain below normal    * Coming Up: EIA natgas storage data 10:30 a.m. EDT (1430GMT    By Eileen Houlihan    NEW YORK, May 2 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures edgedhigher early on Thursday, boosted by continued near-term coolweather in the middle of the nation and expectations for anotherlight weekly inventory build when data is released laterThursday.    A long cold winter put a huge dent in inventories, andlingering cool weather this spring has led to a slow start tothe injection season.    Most traders and analysts expect weekly data from the U.S.Energy Information Administration to show a build of about 28billion cubic feet when it is released at 10:30 a.m. EDT (1430GMT), a Reuters poll showed.     Stocks rose 31 bcf during the same week last year and onaverage over the past five years have gained 67 bcf that week.    Still, most traders expect the onset of milder springweather in the coming weeks to finally curb any late-seasonheating demand before heavy cooling loads kick in.    As of 9:04 a.m. EDT (1304 GMT), front-month June natural gasfutures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at$4.346 per million British thermal units, up 2 cents, or lessthan 1 percent.    The contract rose as high as $4.444 on Wednesday, itshighest mark since late July 2011, according to Reuters data.    The latest National Weather Service six to 10-day forecastissued on Wednesday called for above-normal temperatures forabout the western third of the country and in northern NewEngland and below-normal readings for most of the remainder ofthe country.    Nuclear plant outages totaled 20,400 megawatts, or 20percent of U.S. capacity, down from 22,800 MW out on Wednesday,22,900 MW out a year ago and a five-year average outage rate of22,200 MW.         ANOTHER LIGHT INVENTORY BUILD EXPECTED    Last week's EIA gas storage report showed domesticinventories rose the prior week by 30 bcf, below Reuters pollestimates for a 32 bcf build, the year-ago gain of 43 bcf andthe five-year average build of 50 bcf for that week.     Inventories also started the injection season about threeweeks later than expected due to the unusually cold spring andstocks, at 1.734 trillion cubic feet, are nearly 32 percentbelow last year and more than 5 percent below the five-yearaverage.    EIA data on Tuesday showed gross natural gas production inFebruary climbed for the first time in three months. Output roseto about 1.27 bcf per day, or 1.8 percent above the same monthlast year, after dropping below year-ago levels in January forthe first time since 2010.     The report dimmed prospects that record high productionwould slow anytime soon despite Baker Hughes gas drilling rigdata last week that showed the rig count dropped to a 14-yearlow.