A nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in northern Japan started tests with depleted uranium yesterday -- a major step in experiments aimed at reprocessing fuel to boost energy self-sufficiency here, despite a series of accidents and safety concerns.
The test at Rokkasho, about 580km northeast of Tokyo, marked the plant's first use of radioactive materials, said Masanori Hiroo, a spokesman for plant operator Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.
The 2.1 trillion yen (US$20 billion) plant is crucial to Japan's hopes of using a reprocessed reactor fuel called mixed oxide, or MOX.
Its opening -- now planned for 2006 -- is years behind schedule due to a radioactive water leak there in 2002 and protests from area residents and officials.
Hiroo said the test, expected to last a year before real reprocessed fuel is introduced, involves handling possible problems.
The reprocessed fuel could be used in reactors that burn a uranium-plutonium mixture -- or in more advanced fast-breeder reactors that use plutonium, and which also produce more plutonium that can be used as fuel.
The government's energy policy calls for converting as many as 18 electricity-generating reactors to use MOX as a transition to fast-breeder reactors. All of Japan's MOX would be made from spent fuel rods at the Rokkasho plant, then shipped out to fuel other plants in the country.
"Nuclear reprocessing is an extremely important operation that we must achieve from energy security and environmental point of view," said Japan Nuclear Fuel President Isami Kojima. "We'll place safety control as top priority as we continue efforts to improve service quality." Nuclear power is vital to resource-poor Japan's plans to become more energy independent. Its 52 active nuclear plants supply more than a third of its energy.
The government wants to build 11 more reactors, boosting nuclear power to 40.7 percent of Japan's energy supply by 2010.
Yesterday, workers hauled into the plant about 53 tonnes of depleted uranium -- less radioactive than ordinary uranium.
Japan's only other plutonium-using reactor has been closed since a 1995 accident.
The country's nuclear power industry has been plagued by safety problems and shutdowns in recent years. A 1999 reprocessing plant accident outside Tokyo killed two workers and exposed hundreds to radioactivity.
In the nation's deadliest nuclear power plant accident, five people were killed at Mihama in central Japan after a corroded pipe ruptured in August, spraying workers with boiling water and steam.
The accidents have fanned public worries about nuclear energy and pressed the government to review its policy.
Yesterday, about 100 people gathered outside the Rokkasho plant to demand the operation be scrapped.
"The reprocessing could trigger radioactive pollution," Greenpeace Japan said in a statement. "We see no justifiable reason to push forward the reprocessing project."