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The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency issued a permit Tuesday to Shikoku Electric Power Co., allowing it to proceed with development of a “pluthermal” nuclear power system that will generate electricity by burning a fuel mixture containing plutonium at its No. 3 reactor in Ikata, Ehime Prefecture.

If the project is approved by residents, the utility will replace about a quarter of the reactor’s fuel with plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel, or MOX, to begin pluthermal power generation by fiscal 2010.

Shikoku Electric became the fourth utility to obtain a permit for a pluthermal project, following Kansai Electric Power Co., Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Kyushu Electric Power Co.

Shikoku Electric President Katsumi Ota pledged to push the project forward while placing priority on safety as he received the permit from agency head Kenkichi Hirose.

Saga Prefecture and the town of Genkai, home of the Genkai nuclear plant, formally agreed Sunday to begin a pluthermal project at the plant’s No. 3 reactor. Kyushu Electric is the only utility so far to have received both a permit from the central government and local approval of such a project. Kyushu Electric plans to begin using MOX fuel by fiscal 2010.

Also on Tuesday, the country’s first plant designed to extract plutonium and uranium from spent nuclear fuel cleared the final hurdle before its test run.

Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura announced that the village of Rokkasho, which hosts the plant, will sign a safety agreement for trial operations with plant operator Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. Japan Nuclear Fuel, which is majority-owned by the country’s electric utilities, is expected to begin reprocessing spent fuel by Friday. Nuclear plants have a growing stockpile of spent fuel.