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Push to restart MOX facilities

June 15, 2013
Utilities seek resumption of plutonium-thermal power generation




Two utilities in western Japan will seek permission to restart reactors for plutonium-thermal power generation, a key part of a program touted by the government but plagued by safety concerns and local opposition.

Kansai Electric Power Co. plans to apply for restarts of its No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Takahama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture while Shikoku Electric Power Co. is eyeing a restart of the No. 3 reactor at the Ikata nuclear plant in Ehime Prefecture.

The requests will be made in July in their applications to restart idle nuclear reactors. The Nuclear Regulation Authority’s new safety standards for reactors will take effect in the same month.

The "pluthermal" process consumes mixed-oxide fuel, which contains plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel, to generate power.

Kansai Electric is currently running the only two of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors that are online—the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Oi nuclear plant, also in Fukui Prefecture.

The two reactors are expected to go offline in September for regular inspections. The utility says these reactors already meet the new safety standards, and it will apply to resume their operations.

A new shipment of processed mixed-oxide fuel is expected to arrive at the Takahama plant from France later this month.

“Our application will be one that takes account of the use of mixed-oxide fuel,” Makoto Yagi, president of Kansai Electric, said at a June 14 news conference, although he did not elaborate on whether his company would actually resume the plutonium-thermal process. “We will make a decision based on the understanding of the local communities.”

Shikoku Electric said the plutonium-thermal process was active at the No. 3 reactor at the Ikata plant before it was shut down in April 2011.

“We did generate power (with the plutonium-thermal process) for 14 months,” a Shikoku Electric representative said. “Safety remains our foremost priority.”

However, some experts doubt the safety of the plutonium-thermal process, saying the use of mixed-oxide fuel reduces the effectiveness of control rods that suppress fission in nuclear reactors.

The NRA is expected to examine the appropriateness of safety measures to deal with potential accidents during the use of mixed-oxide fuel.

Behind the expected requests of Kansai Electric and Shikoku Electric is a surplus of plutonium reserves from Japan’s stalled nuclear fuel cycle policy.

As a key part of the nuclear fuel cycle project, the plutonium-thermal process was supposed to have been implemented at 16 to 18 nuclear reactors across Japan.

But opposition by communities hosting nuclear reactors has allowed actual operations at only four reactors--the No. 3 reactor at Takahama; the No. 3 reactor at Ikata; the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant; and the No. 3 reactor at the Genkai nuclear plant in Saga Prefecture.

The March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant further strengthened the opposition of host communities.

In addition, some existing nuclear reactors are expected to be labeled unsafe and inoperable after the new regulation standards are applied.

Observers said utilities are eager to continue with the plutonium-thermal process, even if doing so would fall far short of attaining the initial goals of the project.

Although uncertainties surround the fuel cycle project, especially after the Fukushima nuclear accident, the central government has maintained its initial stated goal of reprocessing, or extracting plutonium from, all of Japan’s spent nuclear fuel. But Japan is now stuck with growing stockpiles of plutonium with the reactors offline.

The international community discourages nations from possessing excess plutonium for fear it could be used to build nuclear weapons.

The Japan Atomic Energy Commission said utilities and other entities in the country possess about 45 tons of plutonium reserves both in Japan and abroad, including products from reprocessing overseas. That figure is prominently large for a nation that does not possess nuclear weapons.

(Toshio Kawada contributed to this article.)

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