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MOX Fuel Ships Arrive in Japan Amidst Citizen Protest

On May 18, 2009, two British-flagged vessels, the Pacific Pintail and Pacific Heron arrived in Japan from France carrying 1.7 metric tons of weapons-usable plutonium contained in 65 assemblies of MOX (mixed plutonium and uranium oxide) fuel. The ships were met with citizen protest at the Omaezaki port, Shizuoka Prefecture, 180 km from Tokyo. The electric utilities and government hope that this fuel will start Japan's beleaguered pluthermal program.

Photo of Demonstration in Saga City, 10 May 2009
The vessels had left France on March 6th and had travelled the some 30,000 km, south of the Cape of Good Hope, Africa, across the southern Indian Ocean, through the Tasman Sea, and past South Pacific islands states, north to Japan. Although the route was originally to be kept secret until after the ship's arrival in Japan, due no doubt to en route countries' concern, the route was announced jointly by Japanese electric utilities, Areva NC, and the UK shipper two days after the ships departed Cherbourg, France.

The 28 MOX fuel assemblies for Chubu Electric's Hamaoka Unit 4 plant which arrived at Omaezaki port, travelled the 10km on public prefectural roads to the plant site. The Pacific Pintail and Pacific Heron then continued on to the Genkai Unit 3 plant in Saga Prefecture (May 23rd)), meeting with citizen protest, and unloading the 16 assemblies for the nuclear power plant at its port. The remaining 21 assemblies are destined for Shikoku Electric's Ikata nuclear power plant Unit 3 in Ehime Prefecture. More shipments from France to Japanese nuclear power plants are scheduled to follow.

Earlier, on May 10th, Saga citizens held a rally protesting Kyushu Electric's MOX fuel program. Saga citizens now aim to gather 400,000 signatures from prefectural citizens (Saga's total population: 850,000) by the end of August. The petition is directed to governor Yasushi Furukawa and seeks an end to the MOX fuel program.

On May 18th, the day the ships arrived in Japan, Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, Green Action, and Greenpeace Japan called on countries potentially on the route of future MOX fuel shipments to join in demanding the termination of these dangerous shipments.

MOX fuel shipments are unsafe and trample on the right of en route countries to protect their citizens and environment
On March 18th, shortly after the MOX fuel shipment left Cherbourg, Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (member of the US Congress, House of Representatives from the Territory of American Samoa), in a statement made on the U.S. House floor, protested this MOX shipment stating, "As usual, plans for this latest shipment, the largest so far, was covered in shrouds of secrecy without prior consultation or notification of en-route states. Yet, any accident involving the ships or their cargo could have catastrophic consequences on the environment and the population of en-route states. Moreover, with the increasing threat of piracy, the transported plutonium MOX fuel could easily fall in the hands of terrorists..."

Faleomavaega continued, "This unnecessary and unjustifiable shipment provides another example of the unacceptable risks and adverse impact the use of nuclear power and nuclear materials have on the environment and the lives of those involved. It demonstrates once again the imperialistic behavior of some major countries at the expense of others.... Europe, Japan and all nuclear states, should keep their nuclear materials and waste in their own backyard, and not endanger the lives of others."

MOX Fuel Ships Have Serious Design Flaws
In April 2009, a report commissioned by 70 nuclear free local authorities in the UK found that the Pacific Pintail and Pacific Heron have serious design flaws.1 The Pacific Pintail (built in 1987) is still operating despite having been built to the same design and construction standards as predecessor vessels decommissioned or scrapped following discovery of "run away" corrosion. The Pacific Heron (built in 2008) has only small modifications from the original design of the earlier ships. Available details of these modifications do not describe measures to prevent "run away" corrosion.

Although the shippers proclaim that the ships are double-hulled, where in fact 40% of the vessels are only single-skinned hull. The study also found that claims that the ships are unsinkable "lack scientific and technical credibility." Moreover, the report found that emergency plans for coping with accidents are non-existent.

No One In Charge? Regulations Not Met?
Masato Mori, the government official at the Ministry of Transport, Land, and Infrastructure (MLIT) in charge of the safety of the MOX fuel transport stated on February 13th, shortly before the ships' departure, "[MLIT] is not the party which is fully in charge of this transport. The primary party responsible is the [Japanese] electric utilities. We've told them time and time again that they should put more effort into the safety of sea transports, just like they put into the safety of their nuclear power plants." MLIT concludes that the effort by Japanese electric utilities is not sufficient.

In order to assure that the MOX fuel will not have an uncontrolled chain reaction (go critical) under accident conditions, MLIT regulations require that utilities undertake a drop test of the transport casks with "an object equivalent to the material of the shipment." The utilities, however, did not meet this requirement. Instead, they undertook the test with a lead-based alloy at normal temperatures. (The actual MOX fuel is hot due to the emission of alpha rays. Electric utility documents state that the heat weakens the MOX fuel material.)

On the afternoon of February 26th, concerned that the Japanese government was about to give its approval for a MOX fuel shipment which did not meet Japanese government regulations, twenty Japanese national Diet members, including prominent members of the leading opposition party, the Democratic Party, signed a letter addressed to MLIT stating that the shipment should not go forward until government regulations were met. The letter stated:

"It is essential that the same level of safety precaution be applied to the shipment of nuclear fuel as is applied to nuclear reactors in Japan. ...More specifically, it is essential that the safety of both the MOX fuel assembly and its casks be assured under all circumstances during shipment. Most importantly, as MOX fuel is fissionable material, and there is a possibility of accidents occurring en route, MLIT has a legal obligation to demand assurances that an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction cannot occur, and to ensure that tests have been conducted to assure that these regulations have been met."

The Diet member letter quotes Section 4 Number 3 of the MLIT regulations and states that the test conducted by the electric utilities did not meet the heat and material requirement of the regulation, saying, "This can hardly be said to be "an object equivalent to the material of this shipment", and surely amounts to a failure to fulfil the legal requirements of the testing." The letter concluded, "For this reason, it cannot be claimed that the safety of the MOX fuel shipment has been assured. Doubts concerning safety are undoubtedly shared not only by those in Japan but also by citizens of the nations along the shipment route. This shipment, which will be carried out without testing that fulfils Japan's legal requirements, should not take place.

Disregarding the Diet members' letter and its own concerns, MLIT rushed through the approval the same night (February 26th), paving the way for the shipment to leave France.

Where Goes Japan's Pluthermal Program?
This MOX fuel shipment is part of Japan's failed plutonium program. The country has built up tons of surplus plutonium (now 38 tons in Europe and around 9 tons in Japan), and MOX fuel utilization in Japanese commercial reactors is Japan's attempt to consume some of that surplus plutonium, originally intended for the fast breeder reactor program.

Japan's MOX fuel utilization program was to start in 1999. However, a quality control data falsification scandal, local citizen referendum, falsification of nuclear power plant inspection data, and a nuclear accident have delayed the program.

It is worthy to note that virtually none of the plutonium shipped from Europe to Japan, either in the form of plutonium dioxide or MOX fuel, has ever been actually used. Between 1984 and 2001, a total of slightly over 2.5 tons had been shipped (between 1984 and 2001), of which only about 30kg has been used (in Monju in 1995 before the prototype reactor had a sodium lead and fire accident).

On May 18th, a total of 420 citizen, consumer, peace, and professional organizations from every prefecture in Japan submitted a petition to the Japanese government stating the pluthermal program forces MOX spent fuel waste onto the prefectures. (Currently, there is no destination for spent MOX fuel.)

Japan's MOX fuel utilization program was to start in 1999. However, a quality control data falsification scandal, local citizen referendum, falsification of nuclear power plant inspection data, and a nuclear accident delayed the program.

Aileen Mioko Smith, Executive Director, Green Action (Kyoto)

1. Nuclear Free Local Authorities Briefing No. 66, 31 March 2009.

Stop Press: It was reported on May 19th that the Pacific Heron had developed problems in one of its engines during the voyage but was able to continue using another independent engine. No further details are known at the time of this writing.

Return to NIT 130 contents

Go to CNIC's page on MOX and pluthermal.


Citizens' Nuclear Information Center
Akebonobashi Co-op 2F-B, 8-5 Sumiyoshi-cho,
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 162-0065, Japan