TOKYO - Shock waves rippled through Japan's energy industry on Monday after a small village voted to reject the use of a controversial recycled nuclear fuel in the latest blow to the nation's nuclear ambitions.
Senior government and industry officials were quick to repeat their commitment to the use of the recycled fuel -- known as MOX -- adding in the same breath that they would strive harder to gain the public's understanding for nuclear fuel, something that has been sorely missing in the wake of a series of accidents at nuclear facilities.
In a relatively close vote, 53.4 percent of the 3,458 votes cast in the village of Kariwa in Niigata Prefecture, on Sunday went against the use of MOX fuel in the local 8.2-megawatt Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co Inc (TEPCO).
Japan's nuclear industry in shock after 'no' vote - An unidentified local Japanese leader of the anti-nuclear fuel campaign holds up a fish traditionally used for celebrations after hearing that the village of Kariwa had voted to reject the use of a controversial recycled nuclear fuel. REUTERS/Kazunori Takada
TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the world's largest nuclear power plant, provides 20 percent of the capital's power supply.
Takamitsu Sawa, Director at Kyoto University's Institute of Economic Research said that although Sunday's vote was not binding, the government cannot force its decision to use MOX on the local inhabitants.
"I personally think this vote is very significant...and that the government will be forced to make a major revision in Japan's nuclear policy," Sawa said.
"It is a vote of historic proportions," he said.
MOX SEEN AS ENHANCING ENERGY SECURITY
TEPCO President Nobuya Minami told a news conference on Monday that it would further strive to gain the public's understanding on MOX and nuclear energy, although he was unable to elaborate on what those steps would be.
However, industry watchers were skeptical on what else the industry and the government could do to win back public trust.
"There is a limit to the understanding you can hope to win (from the public) given that you cannot guarantee that nuclear energy is 100 percent safe," Sawa said.
Energy policy makers say MOX provides resource poor Japan with an efficient means of reducing new uranium consumption while at the same time making effective use of the plutonium that is produced by the nuclear power generation process.
The plutonium that is blended with uranium to produce MOX, or plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel, comes from recycling spent nuclear fuel.
The crux of Japan's energy policy has always been targeted at trying to secure a stable supply of energy for the island nation, which is heavily dependent on imports for its energy needs.
Nuclear policy makers say MOX fuel will significantly enhance Japan's energy security once planned facilities are operational and Japan begins to produce its own MOX fuel thus creating a domestic nuclear fuel cycle.
Sawa said: "But the use of MOX should be on condition that there is public acceptance for it."
Japan currently has a contract with European firms to recycle its spent nuclear fuel and produce MOX, however Japan's nuclear plan aims to undertake the process in Japan.
Construction for Japan's first plant to reprocess spent nuclear fuel is already underway in Rokkasho-mura, Aomori Prefecture at the northern tip of Japan's main island, and is due to be completed in 2005.
Moreover, power industries decided last November to go ahead with plans to build Japan's first processing plant to produce MOX fuel, which is due to be operational also by 2005.
Sunday's vote casts a shadow over the future of these plans, although the power industry vows to stick to its nuclear policy.
"As we have said many times in the past, the use of (MOX fuel) is important in terms of the nation's...energy policy...and we must move ahead with its implementation," TEPCO President Minami said.
NUCLEAR PLANS FACE SETBACKS
Initial plans had called for the fuel to be loaded at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa's No. 3 nuclear reactor during current maintenance that started on April 17.
Minami told reporters that TEPCO would make a final decision on whether to load MOX or conventional nuclear fuel at the reactor by mid-June.
He also said TEPCO would set up an in-house committee to promote the use of MOX fuel. Japan's nuclear industry was forced to postpone an initial plan to begin using MOX fuel in commercial nuclear reactors in 1999, after British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) admitted in September of that year that it had falsified data on MOX fuel shipped to Japan's second largest utility, Kansai Electric Power CO Inc.
Public trust in nuclear energy was dealt another blow when a few weeks later Japan's worst nuclear accident at a uranium processing plant exposed hundreds of people including plant workers, emergency personnel and residents to radiation.
Two of JCO CO Ltd's plant workers later died.
MOX fuel has yet to be loaded at a Japanese commercial nuclear reactor.
Japan's nuclear industry has faced numerous setbacks to its plans in the wake of these nuclear incidents.
In February last year, the outspoken governor of Mie Prefecture said that Chubu Electric Power CO Inc's 37-year-old plan to build an electric power plant should go back to the drawing board.
Governor Masayasu Kitagawa said his action took into account the fierce conflict over the plant that had divided the local community since the project was first unveiled.
Nuclear power provides a third of Japan's electricity supply
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