• Kyodo

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A plant under construction in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, to produce plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel, a major component of the country's stalled nuclear fuel recycling program, formally passed safety checks by regulators Wednesday.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority gave its approval, despite the lack of a concrete plan for the usage of MOX fuel going forward due to the slow resumption of nuclear power generation following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami.

MOX fuel is made of plutonium and uranium extracted while reprocessing spent fuel from nuclear reactors nationwide. Only four reactors currently use such recycled fuel for pluthermal power generation, with the number of such units not expected to increase in the near future.

"It is important that utilities show usage plans (for MOX fuel) at an appropriate time," NRA Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa said earlier.

At a meeting Wednesday of the five NRA commissioners, including Fuketa, all approved the safety measures taken at the MOX fuel fabrication plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, such as not placing all nuclear fuel substances in one location and installing fire control equipment.

The plant is located 55 meters above sea level and the operator Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. believes it will not be affected by tsunami.

Among public feedback solicited by the NRA on the plant construction, a view stating that "the nuclear fuel cycle has collapsed and there is no use for MOX fuel" was shared at the gathering.

The government and the power industry have promoted the use of MOX fuel for decades believing a nuclear fuel recycling program is essential for resource-poor Japan.

They also said it will help the country reduce its stockpile of plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Japan Nuclear Fuel applied for safety checks with the NRA for the MOX fuel fabrication plant in January 2014 under stricter regulations imposed following the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011.

It had initially planned to complete the Rokkasho plant in 2012 but the target year was postponed repeatedly due to work suspensions following the Fukushima crisis.

The plant also needs to pass further checks on its construction plans before it can start operations, clouding the outlook for the facility to be completed by the first half of the fiscal year starting April 2022 as sought by the operator.

The costs to construct the plant have ballooned from the initial ¥120 billion ($1.15 billion) to ¥390 billion. Total expenses, including outlays to run the plant, are expected to reach ¥2.34 trillion.

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