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Regulators OK troubled nuclear fuel processing plant in northeastern Japan

This file photo taken from a Kyodo News helicopter on April 24, 2020, shows a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Nuclear regulators on Wednesday said a trouble-plagued fuel reprocessing plant in northeastern Japan has passed safety checks, bringing it a step closer to beginning operations after more than two decades in limbo.

    The plant in the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, is designed to take spent fuel from reactors and extract uranium and plutonium that can be reused, playing a key role in the country's nuclear fuel recycling policy.

    The Nuclear Regulation Authority said the plant cleared the tougher standards introduced in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, which include requirements for more robust measures against earthquakes and tsunamis.

    While effectively a seal of approval, the endorsement still needs to be finalized after one month to solicit feedback from the public and concerned parties, including industry minister Hiroshi Kajiyama. Even then, the plant must pass further checks before it receives final approval to begin operations.

    Toyoshi Fuketa, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said at a press conference that it may take "a very long time" before the plant comes online.

    Construction of the plant began in 1993. It was originally scheduled for completion in 1997, but persistent troubles forced the timeline to be pushed back 24 times.

    Operator Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., applied for the safety checks in 2014. In 2017 it was discovered that the company failed to carry out necessary inspections on an area of the plant for 14 years, resulting in nearly a ton of rainwater to pour into a building that houses an emergency diesel generator.

    Fuketa said the screening process was prolonged by a relative lack of experience among all parties involved in dealing with fuel reprocessing plants.

    "It's like being first at bat, but also the only one at bat. When considering accidents at power plants, for example, we can look at Three Mile Island or of course Fukushima. But with fuel reprocessing plants, there is no precedent," he told a press conference.

    When it opens, the plant will be able to take up to 800 tons of spent fuel per year and extract about 8 tons of plutonium, which will be used to produce a type of fuel called mixed oxide, or MOX.

    The entire project, from construction to its eventual decommissioning, is estimated to cost nearly 14 trillion yen ($130 billion).

    Japan Nuclear Fuel hopes to begin operations between April and September of next year.

    The plant is set to be a crucial piece of the jigsaw in the government's plan to reduce Japan's reliance on energy imports, though there are serious doubts over whether there will be enough demand for the plant to run at full capacity.

    The government aims to reboot nuclear reactors under the stricter safety regulations put in place after the Fukushima crisis led to a nationwide halt of nuclear plants.

    A prototype reactor that had been slated to be the main recipient of the MOX fuel -- the Monju fast-breeder reactor in central Japan's Fukui Prefecture -- is currently being decommissioned after experiencing a series of problems including a leakage of sodium coolant in 1995.

    Only four thermal reactors that can operate on MOX fuel were brought back online after the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

    As plutonium can be used in nuclear weapons, Japan's production of it during the recycling process could also draw concerns over proliferation from the international community.

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