KARIWA — A majority of residents of the village of Kariwa in Niigata Prefecture objected Sunday to a plan to use plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel at a local nuclear power plant, in Japan’s first plebiscite on use of the controversial fuel, early returns showed.
Although the referendum is not legally binding, the residents’ opposition to the plan by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to introduce the fuel at the No. 3 reactor of its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant is expected to have a significant impact on the government and power companies’ policy of promoting nuclear power.
The plant is the world’s largest in terms of nuclear power generation, producing 8.21 million kilowatts a year and meeting 20 percent of the total electricity demand of TEPCO, which serves the greater Tokyo area.
A village ordinance that set the plebiscite stipulates that the village mayor and village assembly must respect the outcome of the poll.
In the referendum, residents were asked whether they approve of, oppose or have reservations about use of MOX fuel at the plant, which straddles the village and neighboring Kashiwazaki city on the Sea of Japan coast.
Voter turnout for the poll was a high 88.14 percent, according to the village election committee. The village announced on May 17 that it would hold the plebiscite, and eligible voters as of May 16 numbered 4,092.
Under Japan’s so-called “pluthermal” project, the government and power companies want to use MOX fuel in common light-water reactors. The fuel is made by mixing uranium with plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel.
The method has been the mainstay of Japan’s policy for recycling plutonium since a December 1995 sodium coolant leak leading to a fire at Japan’s prototype Monju fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture. The reactor was to have used MOX fuel.
Japan needs to dispose of plutonium, produced as a byproduct from uranium in nuclear power plants, to allay international concerns about the possibility of the country developing nuclear weapons, since plutonium can be used to build nuclear bombs.
Power companies such as TEPCO and Osaka-based Kansai Electric Power Co. plan to start using MOX fuel by 2010 in 16 to 18 reactors. MOX fuel, however, has so far not been used at any of Japan’s nuclear plants because of the discovery in 1999 that British Nuclear Fuels PLC falsified data on MOX fuel for shipment to Japan.
TEPCO aims to introduce MOX fuel at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in mid-June, TEPCO officials said.
Kariwa Mayor Hiroo Shinada gave the plebiscite the green light in late April after the village assembly passed an ordinance for it April 18. In March 1999, the village assembly rejected a petition calling for a plebiscite but then agreed to one in an ordinance adopted in December last year.
Shinada, however, vetoed the plebiscite plan at that time, claiming that the issue pertains to the central government’s energy policy and is therefore not a subject for a plebiscite.
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