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OSAKA — Kansai Electric Power Co. may construct an interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in Gobo, Wakayama Prefecture, using land earmarked for a thermoelectric plant, it was learned Friday.

Construction of the thermoelectric plant, which would have been Gobo’s second, has been postponed due to a lack of demand for electricity, and municipal officials have been looking for other ways to boost the local economy.

Kepco will only proceed with the plan if local governments formally request that the facility be built there, sources close to the plan said. The facility would serve as a temporary storage site until spent fuel from nuclear plants can be reprocessed.

Doubts over the future of the government’s pluthermal power project, arising from safety concerns, fueled in part by Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s coverup of reactor faults, have increased the need for storage facilities.

The pluthermal project involves generation of electricity through burning mixed oxide fuel, made from uranium and plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel.

Electric power companies are hoping to build several such sites across the nation by 2010, and Tepco is already conducting feasibility studies to construct a storage facility in Mutsu, Aomori Prefecture. The Gobo facility would be the second in Japan.

Kepco had initially planned to select a site for the storage facility by the end of March 2001, but the process ran into difficulties after local governments voiced concern — particularly following the deadly 1999 nuclear accident at a uranium processing facility in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, in which clear safety violations triggered a nuclear chain reaction.

Plans to build a reactor in Hidaka and Hikigawa, both in Wakayama Prefecture, have hit snags due to staunch local opposition, and sources said the future of the storage facility proposal remains unclear.

No decision has been made on the storage facility, Kepco officials said, adding it has not discussed the issue with municipalities.

Kepco had been planning to build a second thermoelectric plant in Gobo, with total output of 4.4 million kw, on some 109 hectares of reclaimed land south of the current plant. It was to begin operations in January 2007, but the utility decided to push back the date due to weakened demand for electricity.

Power firms in Japan can dispose of spent nuclear fuel, which is highly radioactive, in three ways: by storing it in water pools within their nuclear plant compounds, reprocess it overseas, or transporting it to a reprocessing facility currently being constructed in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture.

However, Kepco’s nuclear plants are relatively old, and there is a limit to the amount of available space to store spent fuel. There are also no plans to ship the fuel overseas, as the utility’s contracts with overseas reprocessors have expired and moves to transport nuclear material overseas are usually met with strong opposition.

Antinuclear activists have criticized the plans, saying the root of the problem is not the lack of temporary storage facilities.

“Japan currently has more than 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from the operations of nuclear power plants,” said Aileen Mioko Smith, of the Kyoto-based antinuclear group Green Action Kyoto. “Unless Japan confronts its nuclear waste problem, this figure is expected to rise to more than 40,000 tons by 2020.

“Looking for interim storage sites and allowing more nuclear waste to build up is not the solution,” she said. “Instead, Japan should expeditiously decide to reduce the amount of nuclear waste it creates.”

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