Japanese Voters Reject Mixed Plutonium Uranium Nuclear Fuel

KARIWA, Niigata Prefecture, Japan, May 28, 2001 (ENS) - For the first time, Japan has held an official referendum on the use of mixed plutonium and uranium oxide fuel in the country's nuclear reactors, and Japanese voters turned down the proposal.

Residents of Kariwa village in western Japan voted against the use of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel in the nearby Kashiwazaki-Kariwa 3 nuclear reactor. Operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, this is one of seven units that make up the world's largest nuclear power plant.

MOX fuel is made by mixing plutonium dioxide and uranium dioxide. The reuse of the plutonium extracted from conventional spent nuclear fuel as a component of MOX fuel has been at the center of the energy program in fossil fuel dependent Japan.

In total, 88.14 percent of Kariwa voters took part in the referendum, 3,605 voters cast their ballots out of 4,092 voters in the village.

Of this number, 1925 (53.4 percent) voted no to the use of MOX, and 1,533 (42.7 percent) voted yes. The rest, 131 people representing 3.7 percent, voted to suspend the use of MOX.

The result of the referendum, though not legally binding, means that it will be impossible for Tokyo Electric Power Company to proceed with plans to load plutonium MOX fuel currently sitting in its storage ponds on the site into the reactor.

The environmental group Greenpeace, which has campaigned against the use and transport of MOX fuel for years says that when MOX fuel is loaded into a nuclear reactor it "lowers the safety margins for the operator, increasing the chances of a nuclear accident, as well as making a future accident more severe in terms of health effects and environmental contamination."

Kazue Suzuki of Greenpeace Japan in Kariwa village, said, "Nuclear industry and government propaganda have been ignored by the citizens of Kariwa in voting against the use of plutonium MOX fuel. Japan's plans for using plutonium were going nowhere before today's result, tonight they are in ruins."

"Rather than being the center of energy production in Japan," Suzuki said, "the plutonium program has drained billions of dollars from taxpayers. The opposition to the use of this dangerous material will now grow even stronger throughout Japan, with a real prospect of the program being terminated."

The result could set back Japanese plans for the use of thousands of kilograms of plutonium extracted from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from this and other Japanese nuclear reactors currently stored in Europe.

The Tokyo based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center is now calling on the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company to respect the opinion of local residents, and cancel the use of MOX fuel at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa 3. "The government and the utilities should put an end to the dangerous and uneconomical MOX fuel program," the group says.

Japan's original plan was to extract plutonium by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, and use the plutonium as fuel for fast breeder reactors. But the development of fast breeder reactors came to a standstill following the sodium leak and fire at the Monju prototype fast breeder in 1995. Despite this failure and nuclear accidents in the late 1990s at Tokai, the center of Japan's domestic nuclear research and waste handling operations, the reprocessing of Japanese spent fuel in England and in France has continued.

Japan now has a great deal of excess plutonium. The Citizens' Nuclear Information Center estimates that as of the end of 1999, there were 27.6 tons of Japanese plutonium stored in England and France, and 5.3 tons stored domestically.

The MOX fuel program has been presented by the government as the sole option for consuming this plutonium.

The referendum result could also prove a setback to efforts by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) and the French state owned reprocessing company, Cogema, to secure commercial contracts for the production of MOX fuel from other countries including Japan.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa fuel is the third batch of MOX fuel to be shipped to Japan and then rejected for use. The 28 assemblies of MOX, containing around 220 kilograms of plutonium, arrived on the British Nuclear Fuels vessel Pacific Pintail in March after a 30,000 kilometer voyage protested by environmental groups and many countries en route.

In 1999, a shipment of MOX fuel from British Nuclear Fuels arrived in September under suspicion that BNFL workers had falsified quality control data. In February 2000, it was proved that fuel production standards had been violated by BNFL, and the eight assemblies of MOX fuel, intended for the Takahama-4 reactor operated by Kansai Electric, will now be returned to the UK at a cost of billions of yen.

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The BNFL ship Pacific Teal enters Fukushima harbor with its cargo of MOX fuel, September 1999. Japanese security forces boat is seen at left, the red and white towers of the Fukushima power plant in the background. (Photo by Jorge Punzi courtesy Greenpeace)
A second cargo of MOX fuel, produced by a French Belgian consortium led by Cogema, also arrived in 1999 for use in the Tokyo Electric reactor, Fukushima-1-3. It came under suspicion of quality control violations and was the focus of a legal battle to prove falsification.

In March, the regional governor of Fukushima Prefecture decided to conduct a one year review of MOX fuel use, citing loss of public confidence as one reason for the review. The 32 assemblies of plutonium MOX fuel at issue, remain stored at the Fukushima-1-3, nearly two years after delivery.

Japan has 53 operating nuclear reactors, more than any country except the United States and France. They provide roughly 30 percent of the country's electricity. Three nuclear power plants are currently under construction.