• Kyodo

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Nuclear regulators on Wednesday said a troubled fuel reprocessing plant in the northeast of the nation has passed safety checks, bringing it a step closer to beginning operations after more than two decades in limbo.

The plant in the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, is designed to take spent fuel from reactors and extract uranium and plutonium that can be reused, playing a key role in the country’s nuclear fuel recycling policy.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority said the plant had cleared tougher standards introduced in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, including requirements for more robust measures against earthquakes and tsunami. It set a one-month period to solicit feedback from industry minister Hiroshi Kajiyama and other parties concerned.

Construction of the plant began in 1993. It was originally scheduled for completion in 1997, but persistent difficulties forced the timeline to be pushed back 24 times.

Most recently, it was found in 2017 that operator Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. had failed to carry out necessary inspections on an area of the plant for 14 years, resulting in nearly one ton of rainwater pouring into a building housing an emergency diesel generator.

When it opens, the plant will be able to process up to 800 tons of spent fuel per year and extract about 8 tons of plutonium, which will be used to produce a type of fuel called mixed oxide (MOX). The entire project, from construction to its eventual decommissioning, is estimated to cost nearly 14 trillion yen ($130 billion).

The plant still needs to receive final approval from the Nuclear Regulation Authority to come online, with Japan Nuclear Fuel hoping to begin operations between April and September of next year.

The facility is set to be a crucial element of the government’s plan to reduce the nation’s reliance on energy imports, though there are doubts over whether there will be enough demand for the plant to run at full capacity.

A prototype reactor that had been slated to be the main recipient of the MOX fuel — the Monju fast-breeder reactor in central Japan’s Fukui Prefecture — has already been flagged for decommissioning after experiencing a series of problems including a leakage of sodium coolant in 1995.

Only four thermal reactors currently in operation in the country have been outfitted to use MOX fuel.

As plutonium can be used in nuclear weapons, production of the element during the recycling process could draw concerns from the international community over proliferation.

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