National

Safety checks delay construction of MOX fuel plant in Aomori for third time

Kyodo

Construction in Aomori Prefecture of the world’s first commercial reactor to operate solely on plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel will be pushed back for the third time due to prolonged safety checks, the utility building the reactor said Tuesday.

Electric Power Development Co. had been planning to begin construction of major facilities at the Oma nuclear power plant in the prefecture during the latter half of this year, but told the Oma Municipal Assembly on Tuesday it has decided to delay the work by about two years. The delay means the new target for the reactor to begin operations is fiscal now 2026.

The move clouds the course of Japan’s policy for the nuclear fuel cycle, in which the reactor was supposed to play a key role. Mixed oxide (MOX) fuel is produced by extracting plutonium from spent nuclear fuel and mixing it with uranium. Tokyo is also under international pressure to slash its stockpile of plutonium, which has the potential to be used to produce nuclear weapons.

“We would like Electric Power Development to put top priority on safety and respond appropriately to the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s screening,” industry minister Hiroshige Seko said at a news conference.

The company, also known as J-Power, initially sought to start operations at the nuclear plant, to be located in the Aomori town of Oma with an output of 1.38 million kilowatts, in fiscal 2021, but put it back by one year in 2015 and then postponed it to fiscal 2024 in 2016.

Construction of the reactor began in 2008 after gaining state approval, but was stalled following the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

About 40 percent of the construction has been completed, but work so far has centered on setting up office buildings and conducting road repairs.

J-Power applied for safety checks in December 2014, but NRA examinations have focused on assumptions about tsunami and earthquake risk at the overall complex and not at its nuclear facilities. An official at the company told the Oma Municipal Assembly that it may take two more years for the reactor to pass the screening.

J-Power said it hopes to start construction of the reactor and other facilities in the latter half of 2020 and complete it by the second half of 2025.

“It’s very regrettable that the project will be postponed once again. I hope (J-Power) will strive to swiftly pass the screening and help revitalize the regional economy,” Oma Mayor Mitsuharu Kanazawa said at the assembly meeting after hearing from the company official.

The Oma plant has also faced lawsuits seeking suspension of the project.

Residents in Hakodate, Hokkaido, which is some 23 kilometers northwest of Oma across the Tsugaru Strait, filed a lawsuit against the company and the central government with the Hakodate District Court in July 2010, claiming they are concerned about the large amount of highly toxic plutonium that will be used as reactor fuel.

The city of Hakodate also filed suit against the two parties with the Tokyo District Court in April 2014, saying it fears the impact of an accident at a so-called full-MOX reactor will be far more devastating than that of the Fukushima disaster, which led to the long-term evacuation of many local residents.