Japan gets 1st reprocessed nuclear fuel since 2011

TOKYO — A nuclear power plant on Thursday received the first shipment of reprocessed reactor fuel to arrive in Japan since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, although it will not be used until the facility gets government approval to restart its reactors.

The fuel, a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxide called MOX, arrived aboard a freighter from France at the Takahama nuclear power station on the Sea of Japan coast in western Japan. Dozens of anti-nuclear activists rallied outside the complex, chanting slogans against the shipment and use of plutonium-based fuel.

Plant operator Kansai Electric Power Co. is hoping to use the fuel once it gets the go-ahead to restart the reactors, reportedly by early next year.

All but two of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors have been closed for safety checks and upgrades since a tsunami and earthquake in March 2011 touched off meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, northeast of Tokyo, causing extensive damage and massive radiation leaks.

The shipment, initially planned for arrival in early 2011 for use in the No. 3 reactor at the Takahama plant, had been delayed amid growing anti-nuclear sentiment and uncertainty over Japan’s fuel cycle policy following the Fukushima accident.

MOX is particularly controversial because it contains plutonium. Japan has a growing stockpile of plutonium extracted from spent fuel rods, and wants to use it to create more nuclear power, in part to help reduce the amount of nuclear waste it must store. Opponents of that policy contend that using plutonium-based fuel is less safe, and note that the reprocessed material could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Japan’s fuel cycle program has been hit not only with opposition but with technical setbacks. It has tried to test a “fast breeder” reactor that is supposed to achieve self-sustainable cycle of plutonium-based fuel, but that has been shut down for years due to a series of accidents and safety violations. Other nuclear reactors in Japan can use MOX, but only in combination with a larger amount of uranium fuel, and only if local communities accept it.

And although a plant in northern Japan reprocesses spent waste into plutonium, the country lacks a facility to use that plutonium to produce MOX. Because Japan still lacks its own MOX fabrication capability, Japanese nuclear plants that use MOX have to send their used fuel to French nuclear fuel company Areva SA for reprocessing and MOX fabrication.

Kansai spokesman Takahiro Senoh said resumption of the MOX fuel shipment reflected the government’s policy to keep nuclear energy and its nuclear fuel cycle program alive. He said details of the shipment, such as the amount of MOX delivered, could not be released for security reasons until it was safely brought into the No. 3 reactor building following necessary checks.

The No. 3 reactor used MOX before it went offline for routine inspection in February 2012. Some MOX fuel had already been stored at another reactor facility at the plant.

Since taking office in December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pro-nuclear, pro-industry government has campaigned for a resumption of safe reactors, while aggressively trying to export nuclear technology to emerging countries such as Vietnam and Turkey.

The government watchdog Nuclear Regulation Authority last week announced new regulations, taking effect July 8, that pave the way for utility operators to restart their reactors, if they pass inspections under new safety rules that have been made compulsory for the first time.

Kansai Electric said it plans to apply for inspection of two reactors each at Takahama and the nearby Ohi plant when the new rules take effect. Several other companies are also expected to file for inspection of a total of about 10 reactors.

Watchdog chairman Shunichi Tanaka has said inspections will take about six months but he has kept mum about which reactors will be examined first.