GENKAI, Saga Pref. — Before a two-lane access road was built to connect it with other parts of the prefecture, the village of Genkai, nestled in high hills with deep ravines beside the Sea of Japan, was so remote that even locals called it the “Tibet of Saga Prefecture.”
But this town of 6,600 residents, almost in sight of the spot where the Mongolian invasion fleet was hit by “divine winds” over 700 years ago, ending Khubla Khan’s dreams of conquest and adding the word “kamikaze” to the lexicon, may soon be the site of Japan’s first commercial use of mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel.
Kyushu Electric Power Co., which operates the Genkai No. 3 reactor, plans to begin burning the new fuel, which was delivered Saturday, by November.
The burning of MOX in Genkai, if everything goes as scheduled, will open a new chapter in Japan’s quest to attain energy independence and reduce its use of imported coal and oil. It would also be a major victory for the nation’s nuclear power industry, which has suffered a series of scandals and setbacks, some fatal, over the past decade.
In 1999, a scandal erupted when falsified data on MOX made by British nuclear fuel provider BNFL was discovered after the fuel was delivered to Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture. In the same year, workers at nuclear fuel firm JCO mishandled uranium, setting off a sustained chain reaction that killed two workers and forced thousands of residents to evacuate the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. Then there was the July 2007 earthquake in Niigata Prefecture, which shut down Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which just resumed operation earlier this month.
These incidents have been responsible for delaying the start of the MOX program any number of times and have nuclear power officials in the government and the utilities wondering if their announced timelines for the future of nuclear power and MOX are realistic.
In 2002, a 20-year plan was endorsed by the Cabinet calling for an increase in nuclear power generation by about 30 percent, with the expectation that utilities would have between nine and 12 new nuclear plants operating by 2011.
The Britain-based World Nuclear Association, which tracks nuclear developments worldwide, noted in an April report that Japan now has 53 plants on line but only three under construction, with another 13 planned. None, the association notes, are expected to go onstream until at least 2014.
As for Japan’s MOX use, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has approved the fuel for eight reactors. There are about 47 tons of separated reactor-grade plutonium in Europe that came from Japanese spent nuclear fuel, the WNA says, which can be returned to Japan when the MOX program is up and running.
“Once MOX fuel use is routine in Japan, it’s expected that the Japanese stockpile of separated plutonium in Europe will be used up in about 15 years,” the association said in its report. This assessment is shared by many in Japan’s nuclear power industry but challenged by antinuclear activists.
“Use of MOX fuel has already been proven in France to increase rather than decrease plutonium surplus. The pluthermal (i.e. MOX) program would just make Japan’s stockpile problem worse,” Aileen Mioko Smith of Green Action and Hideyuki Ban, Secretary General of Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, said in a joint press statement Saturday.
And will MOX use ever become routine? Local opposition throughout Japan, not just accidents and earthquakes, have prevented MOX from being burned for commercial use so far, although there have been some small tests.
A major challenge is what to do with the waste. In Genkai, Saga Gov. Yasushi Furukawa is pushing not only for MOX, but also for the construction of a high-level waste interim waste disposal facility.
“I think we’re making progress on obtaining the understanding of prefectural citizens. There will always be some people who are opposed to nuclear power,” Furukawa told reporters recently.
Local antinuclear activists, angry at the Saga Prefecture’s rejection of a referendum proposal two years ago, are attempting to get 400,000 signatures, half the prefecture’s population, on a petition to halt the actual burning of MOX fuel as well as the proposed construction of the nuclear waste facility.
Kyushu Electric officials said Saturday they would convey the concerns of the protesters to senior management but did not say if or when they would reply.
“I’m not sure yet if we can reply to all of the demands before August,” said Tatsuma Taniguchi, a Kyushu Electric spokesman who received different sets of demands from four antinuclear groups Saturday.
August is when testing at the Genkai No. 3 plant is expected to finish, and final preparations to load the MOX are scheduled to begin.
For this shipment, Japan, France and nuclear-power industry officials stressed that MOX cannot easily be made into nuclear weapons, and that all safety measures for the ship itself were considered when transporting the fuel from Cherboug, France, to Japan.
However, given the long distance involved, the growing risk of piracy — especially in the Indian Ocean — prompted some countries along any proposed sea route between Europe and Japan to oppose letting ships loaded with MOX from passing through their territorial waters.
International arms control experts have questioned if the risk of the highly radioactive MOX being lost in an accident at sea or stolen for use in crude nuclear weapons is worth it.
In Genkai, however, concerns are more local.
Despite the good jobs and steady income the nuclear power plant provides the area, as well as the various subsidies for the local government that allowed it to build a large, ultramodern citizens’ center and town hall, among other things, many are thinking about the future.
“Will children of the future in a hundred years for now be grateful for the fact that they are living in the shadow of a nuclear power plant that uses MOX fuel? Or will they grieve? The decisions we make now will effect their future”, said local activist Hiroki Nonaka.