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2ND LD: Japan's 1st full-fledged nuclear reprocessing plant begins trial run+
[March 31, 2006]

2ND LD: Japan's 1st full-fledged nuclear reprocessing plant begins trial run+

(Japan Economic Newswire Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)AOMORI, Japan, March 31_(Kyodo) _ (EDS: CHANGING DATELINE, ADDING INFORMATION)

Japan launched a test run Friday of its first full-fledged spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in a nuclear fuel cycle complex located on the northern tip of Japan's largest main island of Honshu.

Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., the operator, plans to put the reprocessing plant into full operation in August 2007 to reprocess some 800 tons of spent nuclear fuel a year into more than 4 tons of plutonium which will be used as uranium-and-plutonium mixed fuel at the country's nuclear power plants.

Various antinuclear groups opposed the test launch of the reprocessing plant in the Pacific coastal village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, saying the plant has a danger of radioactive accidents.

The Rokkasho plant is Japan's first commercial-basis reprocessing plant and is much bigger in scale than a pilot plant built in another nuclear complex in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture in eastern Japan. The Tokaimura plant is capable of reprocessing about 200 tons of spent nuclear fuel a year.

Japan Nuclear Fuel, a national-policy organization established by the country's nine regional utility firms and 84 power-related firms, said the test run, which it calls active tests, will last for 17 months.

On Friday, a crane pulled up clusters of spent nuclear fuel from a storage pool to place them on a transfer truck. The plant operator said it will begin cutting the clusters into segments Saturday.

During the test run, about 430 tons of spent nuclear fuel will be melted to extract plutonium and uranium.

The International Atomic Energy Agency will station nuclear inspectors at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant because the plutonium to be extracted is fissile and can be used for nuclear weapons.

In Tokyo, the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, an antinuclear group, said, "While the world's attention is diverted by the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, Japan has strengthened its position among countries which wish to develop weapons-usable technologies."

"Besides the proliferation risks, the beginning of active tests also marks the beginning of large-scale radioactive pollution from the plant," the group said in a statement.

The Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs demanded an immediate halt to the test run, saying Japan has already caused major concerns to other Asian countries for its extraction of plutonium and enrichment of uranium.

Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura and neighboring Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda both urged Japan Nuclear Fuel to ensure the safety of the reprocessing plant and make utmost efforts to gain understanding from local residents for the project.

Japan Nuclear Fuel began to build the reprocessing plant in 1993 with an estimated cost of 760 billion yen. But the construction costs swelled to 2,193 billion yen following a series of troubles such as a water leakage in the fuel pool and a design error in the cooling devices.

Japan Nuclear Fuel denies the possibility of any adverse effects to human health from radioactive substances to be released into the air and sea during the test run.

The test run got under way after the plant operator signed a safety agreement with five municipalities surrounding the village of Rokkasho earlier Friday.

The conclusion of the agreement with the city of Misawa, the towns of Tohoku, Noheji and Yokohama, and the village of Higashidori -- all in Aomori Prefecture -- follows the signing of a similar agreement with the Aomori prefectural and Rokkasho municipal governments Wednesday.

The agreement contains provisions on ensuring safety, information disclosure, and the local governments' right to conduct investigations at the plant.

The start of the plant's test run represents a major step forward in Japan's attempt to establish a nuclear fuel cycle centering on the so-called "pluthermal" method, under which nuclear power plants will use oxide fuel mixed with plutonium and uranium to be extracted at the Rokkasho plant.

The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan plans to use such mixed fuel at 16 to 18 reactors across the country by March 2011. But currently, only one reactor is ready for the mixed fuel after the operator, Kyushu Electric Power Co. of Fukuoka, gained approval from the central government and support from local governments.

The federation is formed by Japan's nine regional utility firms and Okinawa Electric Power Co. which has operated no reactor. The nine are Hokkaido, Tohoku, Tokyo, Chubu, Hokuriku, Kansai, Chugoku, Shikoku and Kyushu Electric Power companies.

Besides the reprocessing plant, there are a uranium enrichment plant, a mixed fuel processing plant, a low-level radioactive waste site and a high-level waste storage center in the Rokkasho nuclear cycle complex. Japan Nuclear Fuel is headquartered there.

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