A nuclear reprocessing plant seen as key to Japan's efforts to reduce its reliance on energy imports produced its first batch of the solution necessary for making fuel during a test run, an official said on Thursday.
The Rokkasho reprocessing plant in northern Japan, operated by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd (JNFL), produced its first batch of MOX solution, a uranium-plutonium mixture, during a successful output test, said JNFL spokesman Shigehiro Ito.
The solution can eventually be turned into a powder that is the basic ingredient necessary for fuel production, Ito said.
The plant, worth ?2.19 trillion (US$18.7 billion), started test operations on March 31 after a delay caused by a leak of radioactive water in 2002 and strident public opposition.
The tests are slated to run through August next year, after which the plant is expected to begin regular operations, another JNFL spokesman said on condition of anonymity due to company policy.
MOX fuel is a central element of Japan's plans to reduce its dependence on energy imports.
Japan, which now relies on nuclear plants for a third of its energy needs, aims to raise that to nearly 40 percent by 2010.
The government has said it hopes to convert as many as 18 electricity-generating reactors to use MOX.
But the Japanese public has grown increasingly wary of the nuclear power industry following a spate of safety problems, shutdowns and cover-ups.
Safety problems have also left Japan's nuclear fuel-cycle program in a shambles.
The country's first experimental fast-breeder reactor, Monju, was ordered permanently shut down after more than a ton of volatile liquid sodium leaked from its cooling system in 1995.
Japan's only other plant designed to run on MOX, the Fugen reactor, was also shut down in March 2003 due to high operating costs.