Rokkasho resumes acceptance of spent nuke fuel

A nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, started accepting spent nuclear fuel shipments again on Thursday for the first time in about 19 months.

Some 46 tons of spent nuclear fuel from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 2 plant was delivered to Mutsuogawara port in the village aboard the 4,913-ton cargo ship Rokuei Maru early in the morning.

Spent-fuel deliveries to the Rokkasho plant were halted in November 2002 as a result of welding defects that caused a leak of radioactive water at the plant.

It was allowed to resume operations after clearing safety checks.

Following the arrival of the fuel, Aomori prefectural and Rokkasho municipal officials boarded the ship to inspect the containers and confirm that they were safe.

Aomori Prefectural Police provided security in the area.

The containers were then loaded onto trailers and transported to the reprocessing plant, being built by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., about 7 km from the port.

The move is pivotal in light of the government’s plan to complete a nuclear fuel cycle, in which plutonium and uranium are extracted from spent fuel and reused after being processed into mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel.

MOX fuel can be used to generate power under the government’s so-called pluthermal program or used in fast-breeder reactors.

Yet it remains uncertain whether the cycle can be completed, as power firms are finding it difficult to put fast-breeder reactors to practical use.

Monju, Japan’s only fast-breeder reactor, has been shut down since an accident in 1995.

Ahead of the Rokkasho facility’s scheduled full-fledged operations in July 2006, trial operations using depleted uranium are scheduled to take place this month, while another test using spent nuclear fuel is being planned for next June.

Japan Nuclear Fuel plans to store about 1,600 tons of spent nuclear fuel in the facility before full-fledged operations take place. During fiscal 2004, it will accept about 529 tons from nuclear plants around Japan.

Local residents and antinuclear protesters staged demonstrations near the plant, as well as in front of the prefectural government office in the capital city, Aomori.

Residents and environmentalists worry about radioactive leaks and possible training accidents involving aircraft from the nearby Misawa U.S. Air Base.

“We don’t want dangerous radioactive waste to be brought here for storage. The government should end its nuclear fuel reprocessing plans,” said activist Osamu Imamura.

Nuclear power is at the center of Tokyo’s plans to make this resource-poor island nation more energy independent. Government plans call for producing more electricity at nuclear plants instead of at coal or oil-fired plants, which rely on imported resources.

Japan’s 52 active nuclear power plants already supply nearly 35 percent of the country’s energy.