TAKAHAMA, Fukui Pref. — Kansai Electric Power Co. is hoping that Thursday’s return of mixed uranium-plutonium (MOX) fuel to Britain will put an end to nearly three years of nationwide controversy over Japan’s MOX program.

But a host of technical and public relations issues must be dealt with before long-held plans to utilize the fuel are realized.

“We want to restart the MOX program as quickly as possible,” Kepco managing director Hisao Takamoto said. “But we understand that the problems caused by the data falsification by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. has greatly damaged public trust.

“It’s difficult to set a schedule for restarting until we restore that trust,” Takamoto said late Thursday afternoon after the departure of the Pacific Pintail, which is carrying the fuel back to Britain.

Japan hopes to have between 16 and 18 conventional nuclear reactors burning MOX by 2010. There are currently four reactors in Japan licensed to burn MOX, including the Takahama No. 3 and No. 4 plants — both of which are operated by Kepco.

But regaining public support for the MOX program is likely to prove extremely difficult.

“One thing is certain,” said Miwako Ogiso, a Fukui-based antinuclear activist. “We Fukui citizens will never allow BNFL to set foot in our prefecture again.”

The future of Japanese MOX faces two fundamental problems: growing domestic opposition and international logistic worries.

Concern has grown since late 1999, when BNFL admitted it had falsified data related to the MOX fuel shipped to Takahama, thereby forcing Kepco to reject the fuel and seek its return to Britain.

In the wake of the scandal, the village of Kariwa, Niigata Prefecture, on May 27, 2001, narrowly voted in a plebiscite against the use of MOX fuel at a local Tokyo Electric Power Co. plant.

The nonbinding plebiscite came about three months after Fukushima Gov. Eisaku Sato denied permission for Belgian-manufactured MOX fuel to be loaded into Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Sato has also suggested that he will urge the national government to review its policy on starting the MOX program in Fukushima Prefecture.

Since the suspension of the Monju fast-breeder reactor program in Fukui Prefecture following a serious accident in 1995, the national government has been backing the MOX program as one of the key elements of its nuclear-fuel recycling policy.

In a meeting with local mayors last month, Sato said the prefecture will issue an interim report on MOX in September and that it would likely conclude that the MOX program in Fukushima should be frozen.

The MOX program is not necessary to service Japan’s energy needs, Sato reportedly told the mayors, citing its high cost and the abundance of standard uranium fuel.

Fukui Gov. Yukio Kurita, who has been less strident in his opposition, said his prefecture would not debate the MOX program until the controversial fuel at Takahama had been returned to Britain.

Some Fukui politicians believe this is an indication that the governor may consider allowing Kepco to relaunch its MOX program in the future.

“Kurita has not been as direct in his opposition to MOX as Gov. Sato has been,” said Shizuka Sasakawa, a Shimin Rengo assemblyman from the nearby town of Sabae. “Part of the reason is that Fukui, particularly the area along the Sea of Japan Coast, is economically very dependent upon the nuclear power industry.”

While the domestic problems are daunting enough, there is also the issue of international shipments of MOX between Japan and Europe.

Japan has more than 5 tons of plutonium stockpiled domestically, and it has another 33 tons stored at nuclear reprocessing facilities in Britain and France.

Under a 1988 nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, Japan needs approval from the U.S. before it can import or export nuclear fuel.

According to the agreement, shipments of plutonium to and from Japan should, as a general rule, be accompanied by an armed military escort vessel.

Despite this, Japanese and British officials announced in early 1999 that the MOX fuel that was to be sent to Takahama later that year would be delivered by two armed commercial vessels.

The U.S. approved the plan to conduct the 1999 shipment and Thursday’s return with two armed commercial vessels in place of a military escort.

However, the U.S. reportedly gave its permission to the latest return shipment on the condition that it take place after the conclusion of soccer’s World Cup, suggesting heightened concern by Washington of the possibility of a terrorist attack on plutonium fuel shipments.

There are three routes that MOX shipments can take between Japan and Europe, and all are deemed politically sensitive.

To date, more than 50 countries have vowed they will not allow Japanese nuclear fuel to pass through their territorial waters, making overseas transport a long and expensive voyage.

The first route, through the Panama Canal, is the most direct. However, Caribbean nations, on the other side of the canal, are opposed to plutonium passing through their territorial waters. The U.S. is also reportedly nervous about the possibility of a terrorist attack while the ship is in the canal.

A second route is around Cape Horn. But the government of Chile opposes plutonium shipments passing through its territorial waters. What’s more, the treacherous seas during winter — with waves peaking at over 15 meters — also make this route unappealing.

A third route is through the Tasman Sea, and then across the Indian Ocean, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope.

From a political standpoint, this route is less problematic than the others, although New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has told Japan not to transport plutonium through her country’s territorial waters.

In the past, some Pacific Island nations have expressed strong opposition to plutonium shipments passing through their waters. However, antinuclear activists charge that the Japanese government has recently been pressuring those nations to change their stance.

“A lot of Japanese official development assistance was given to nations like Fiji earlier this year, which makes it harder for their governments to say ‘no’ to nuclear fuel transports,” said Greenpeace International’s Shaun Burnie, who has tracked plutonium shipments for nearly two decades.

For their part, Kepco officials say they will continue with the MOX program, despite all the headaches.

“We remain convinced that the MOX program is a vital part of Japan’s future energy security,” said Kepco’s Takamoto.

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