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Quake-Prone Japan Upgrades Nuclear Plants

Thursday, 11 March 2010 10:30 AM

MATSUYAMA, Japan — Japan is going "pluthermal" and anti-nuclear activists are up in arms.

The term, coined by Japan, refers to using mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel containing plutonium in nuclear reactors, instead of normal uranium fuel. Ignoring months of protests and sit-ins, Japan's first nuclear reactor went "pluthermal" last December.

This month, a second plant is going pluthermal too: the Ikata Nuclear Power Plant, which sits on a narrow, mountainous peninsula jutting out into Japan's Inland Sea. Several more plants are due for the upgrade in the coming years.

The government says pluthermal reactors are more efficient and produce less waste than normal plants. Activists say they're more dangerous.

But their pleas look unlikely to stop Tokyo's ambitious plans to boost nuclear power and ultimately become a self-sufficient nuclear nation.

The government touts MOX fuel as a way to recycle the spent fuel from Japan's 54 nuclear reactors. Currently, Japan ships its spent fuel to Europe. There, a French reprocessing firm extracts plutonium from the spent fuel, mixes that plutonium with fresh uranium and — voila — a potent batch of MOX fuel.

Ultimately, Japan wants to reprocess spent fuel and produce MOX itself. But its efforts to develop those advanced capabilities have been plagued by delays and glitches.

Thus the time-consuming, costly trips to and from France, which activists point out are also a proliferation risk. If terrorists got their hands on MOX fuel, they could potentially make a "dirty bomb."

To prevent that, MOX fuel is shipped from Europe to Japan by custom-built ships, bristling with lethal weaponry and accompanied by an elite security detail.

In all, say activists, it's an impractical, cumbersome way to produce electricity and Japan is rolling the dice with public safety.

Aileen Mioko Smith of Green Action, a nonprofit formed in 1991 to oppose Japan's plutonium program, said MOX fuel burns "hotter and faster" than normal nuclear fuel. Japan's current reactors weren't designed to burn MOX fuel, she said, and Japan hasn't spent enough time studying the risks. She says while French plants have also used such fuel, Japan's MOX fuel has higher concentrations of plutonium.

"This is a grand experiment being imposed on the Japanese public," she said. "There's virtually no experience burning this kind of pluthermal fuel."

In January in the port city of Matsuyama, up the coast from the Ikata plant, some 300 people crowded into a lecture hall to listen to activists rail against Japan's latest nuclear upgrade.

Makoto Kondo is one such activist. He's fought for 40 years to have the Ikata plant scrapped. Not only have his efforts been in vain, but now the plant is set to become even scarier, he says.

One top concern for him is earthquakes: the Ikata plant lies near a fault line, and activists like Kondo have long said it's only a matter of time before one of Japan's nuclear plants suffers a direct hit. If that happened to a "pluthermal" reactor, the disaster would be even worse, he said.

"It's unbelievable they would bring in MOX fuel," said Kondo. "It would be far more destructive if a big quake comes or there's a blast."

He shuffled through several decades of news clippings on the Ikata plant, including news of a cooling water leak in the 1970s, the discovery of fish with unnatural, bulging eyes in waters near Ikata in the early 1980s, and the crash of a U.S. military helicopter near the plant in the late 1980s.

He noted that Japan has yet to find a permanent disposal site for its nuclear waste. "The Japanese government still doesn't know what to with used fuel," says Kondo. "No way, no place."

Nuclear policy officials counter that pluthermal reactors are a sensible way for Japan to recycle spent fuel.

"We have no natural resources in Japan, so we think if we can use plutonium from spent fuel, that's a kind of indigenous source of energy," said Shunsuke Kondo, chairman of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission, in an interview at his Tokyo office. "We'd like to use our
resources as best as we can."

He dismissed activists' safety concerns, saying plutonium had long been used in nuclear fuel in Europe, and safety issues had been "well discussed and reviewed." And he said the government was committed to finding a final disposal site for high-level nuclear waste by 2040.

For the Japanese government, pluthermal reactors are just the next step toward the long-cherished dream of nuclear self-sufficiency. Ultimately, they hope to produce MOX fuel in Japan, feed it into a fleet of high-tech "breeder reactors," and reprocess the spent fuel from such reactors into more MOX fuel.

Even some activists admit it will be hard to stop Japan's decades-old nuclear push.

Asked whether he thought protesters could halt the government's plans, anti-nuclear activist Masahiro Kunimoto said with a wry chuckle, "maybe we can, maybe we can't."

Kunimoto said their focus now is educating the Japanese public about "pluthermal" plants.

"We have to help the people understand what pluthermal is," he said, as other activists set up tables with anti-nuclear literature at the Matsuyama city auditorium. "They know there's a battle over it, but they don't understand why."

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Thursday, 11 March 2010 10:30 AM
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