Aomori governor threatens to reject nuclear fuel sent to recycling plant

Aomori Gov. Morio Kimura said Thursday he might not allow spent nuclear fuel to be shipped to a fuel-processing plant in his prefecture if the national government fails to properly deal with his requests for assurances.

His comments suggest the nation’s nuclear fuel-cycle policy could be brought to a standstill following massive damage to public confidence in the nuclear industry due to Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s coverups of problems with its reactors.

But Kimura said that so far he has not been disappointed by the national government’s responses.

“If our requests are not accepted, we could refuse spent nuclear fuel to be shipped to the fuel-processing plant in the village of Rokkasho,” Kimura said at a news conference in Tokyo after a meeting with top government officials on nuclear policy.

If that happens, the Aomori Prefectural Government would “make a critical decision” about the planned start of operations at the reprocessing plant in July 2005. The plant is at the core of plans to recycle plutonium produced in nuclear plants.

But the governor also said that Takeo Hiranuma, minister of economy, trade and industry, responded positively in the meeting, which Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda also attended.

Kimura called for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, a nuclear safety watchdog, to be spun off from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which promotes nuclear power.

In response, Hiranuma said he takes the request seriously and will sincerely consider how to ensure the agency’s independence and national nuclear safety regulations, a METI official said.

However, METI Vice Minister Seiji Murata suggested during a regular news conference later in the day that there are no plans to separate the agency.

“Regarding the issue of organization, I have repeatedly answered this question,” Murata said. The ministry has resisted political calls for making the watchdog independent.

Kimura also urged the national government to give local governments of prefectures with nuclear facilities a stronger say under the Atomic Energy Fundamental Law and other relevant legislation. He asked for a response before the Aomori Prefectural Assembly convenes in late November.

Fukuda and other government officials reiterated their determination to establish the nuclear fuel cycle as a pillar of Japan’s nuclear policy, according to the METI official.