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Opposition to Dangerous MOX Fuel

Ignoring local opposition, electric power companies are pushing ahead with preparations for the introduction of pluthermal1 in 2010. So far, Kyushu Electric (Genkai), Shikoku Electric (Ikata), Chubu Electric (Hamaoka) and Kansai Electric (Takahama) have all received approval from local and prefectural governments and have entered into contracts for the fabrication of MOX fuel at Areva's Melox plant in France. Fabrication of the first batch of MOX fuel for Kyushu Electric has been completed and fabrication of the second batch has begun. It appears that production has commenced for the other companies as well. It is expected that more than one company will ship their MOX fuel together to reduce transport costs. At the earliest, shipments could begin next year.

Cartoon by Shoji Takagi

It will be the first shipment since the twin towers came tumbling down on September 11, 2001. Two ships were used for the previous shipments. Security guards armed with light weapons were on board and the two ships protected each other. It is much easier to extract plutonium from unirradiated MOX fuel than from spent nuclear fuel, so prevention of theft of MOX fuel is a cause for concern. We believe the measures adopted before 9.11 are inadequate and want to know what measures have been taken to strengthen security. Unfortunately, since a 2005 amendment to the Reactor Regulation Law relating to protection of nuclear materials, the route and time of shipments, security provisions, and other information about the shipment of MOX fuel are no longer publicly disclosed. We presume that since such information is not available, the shipments themselves will take place under a veil of secrecy.

History of plutonium and MOX shipments
There was strong international opposition to a plutonium shipment that took place between November 1992 and January 1993. In response to this opposition, the Japanese government decided to have its plutonium fabricated into MOX fuel in Europe, rather than ship pure plutonium to Japan. In practice, this MOX fuel was to be used in Japan's fleet of light water reactors (LWR). The reason for this was that Japan was making no progress with its plan to burn its ever-growing plutonium stockpile in fast breeder reactors (FBR). The official policy shift from burning plutonium in FBRs to the LWR "pluthermal" program was confirmed by a Cabinet Decision on February 4, 2007. The impetus for the shift was a sodium leak and fire at the Monju FBR, which occurred in December 1995.

The Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPCO) announced the power companies' pluthermal plans on February 21, 1997 (Table 1). According to these plans the two largest power companies, Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) and Kansai Electric (KEPCO) would start the ball rolling and the smaller companies would follow. By 2010 between 16 and 18 reactors would be burning MOX fuel. MOX would be introduced into TEPCO's Fukushima I-3 and KEPCO's Takahama-4 in 1999, then in 2000 MOX would be introduced into TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa-3 and KEPCO's Takahama-3.

Table 1: Plants* Commencing Pluthermal
1997 FEPCO Pluthermal Plan Compared to 2008 Reality
Early 2000s
~ 2010
FEPCO 1997
Kyushu JAPCO
Hokkaido Tohoku
Hokuriku Chugoku
Shikoku J-Power
Reality 2008
*This table only shows the names of the power companies to which the plants belong.

TEPCO entered into a contract for the fabrication of MOX fuel at Belgonucleaire's Dessel plant, while KEPCO signed a contract for fabrication at British Nuclear Fuel Ltd.'s (BNFL) MOX Demonstration Plant in Sellafield. The first shipment took place in September 1999.

However, while fuel was being shipped for KEPCO, it emerged that quality control data for the MOX fuel had been falsified. KEPCO had to abandon its plan to use this MOX fuel and its contract with BNFL was cancelled. Moves to repair relations between the companies finally began this year. (BNFL's Sellafield operations are now owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and managed by Nuclear Management Partners Ltd.) It is reported that discussions will be held and possibly some sort of agreement will be signed when UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown visits Japan in November.

MOX fuel for use in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa-3 was shipped in 2000, but TEPCO's pluthermal plan was rejected in a local referendum held in Kariwa Village in May 2001, after the local opposition movement pressured the local government to stage a referendum on the issue. (There is no legal requirement in Japan for local government approval to be obtained before commencing pluthermal operations, but in practice it is not possible to proceed without it.) In 2002 the Mayor of Kariwa Village began manoeuvres toward approving pluthermal, but that year a scandal broke out relating to TEPCO's concealment and falsification of periodic inspections data. As a result, moves to revive the pluthermal plan ground to a halt.

Beginning with Kyushu Electric, several electric power companies began to move ahead with their pluthermal plans after the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry introduced a subsidy system in 2004 for regions which accept pluthermal (see NIT 113). Right now the opposition movement is campaigning to prevent local and prefectural government approval for the pluthermal plans of Hokkaido Electric (Tomari) and Tohoku Electric (Onagawa). Meanwhile, TEPCO's pluthermal plan remains grounded.

Hideyuki Ban (CNIC Co-Director)

1. The term 'pluthermal' refers to the use of plutonium in thermal reactors (i.e. light water reactors), rather than in fast breeder reactors. The fuel is made from a mixed oxide of plutonium and uranium (MOX).

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