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Nuclear Japan: A pox on MOX?

Quake-prone Japan upgrades its nuclear power plants. Anti-nuke activists go radioactive.

Japanese police guard a container of MOX fuel being transported along the road toward the Hamaoka Nuclear Plant upon the fuel's arrival at Omaezaki port on May 18, 2009. (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

MATSUYAMA, Japan — Japan is going "pluthermal" and anti-nuclear activists are up in arms.

The term, coined by Japan, refers to using mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel containing plutonium in nuclear reactors, instead of normal uranium fuel. Ignoring months of protests and sit-ins, Japan's first nuclear reactor went "pluthermal" last December.

This month, a second plant is going pluthermal too: the Ikata Nuclear Power Plant, which sits on a narrow, mountainous peninsula jutting out into Japan's Inland Sea. Several more plants are due for the upgrade in the coming years.

The government says pluthermal reactors are more efficient and produce less waste than normal plants. Activists say they're more dangerous.

But their pleas look unlikely to stop Tokyo's ambitious plans to boost nuclear power and ultimately become a self-sufficient nuclear nation.

The government touts MOX fuel as a way to recycle the spent fuel from Japan's 54 nuclear reactors. Currently, Japan ships its spent fuel to Europe. There, a French reprocessing firm extracts plutonium from the spent fuel, mixes that plutonium with fresh uranium and — voila — a potent batch of MOX fuel.

Ultimately, Japan wants to reprocess spent fuel and produce MOX itself. But its efforts to develop those advanced capabilities have been plagued by delays and glitches.

Thus the time-consuming, costly trips to and from France, which activists point out are also a proliferation risk. If terrorists got their hands on MOX fuel, they could potentially make a "dirty bomb."

To prevent that, MOX fuel is shipped from Europe to Japan by custom-built ships, bristling with lethal weaponry and accompanied by an elite security detail.

In all, say activists, it's an impractical, cumbersome way to produce electricity and Japan is rolling the dice with public safety.

Aileen Mioko Smith of Green Action, a nonprofit formed in 1991 to oppose Japan's plutonium program, said MOX fuel burns "hotter and faster" than normal nuclear fuel. Japan's current reactors weren't designed to burn MOX fuel, she said, and Japan hasn't spent enough time studying the risks. She says while French plants have also used such fuel, Japan's MOX fuel has higher concentrations of plutonium.

"This is a grand experiment being imposed on the Japanese public," she said. "There's virtually no experience burning this kind of pluthermal fuel."

In January in the port city of Matsuyama, up the coast from the Ikata plant, some 300 people crowded into a lecture hall to listen to activists rail against Japan's latest nuclear upgrade.

Makoto Kondo is one such activist. He's fought for 40 years to have the Ikata plant scrapped. Not only have his efforts been in vain, but now the plant is set to become even scarier, he says.

One top concern for him is earthquakes: the Ikata plant lies near a fault line, and activists like Kondo have long said it's only a matter of time before one of Japan's nuclear plants suffers a direct hit. If that happened to a "pluthermal" reactor, the disaster would be even worse, he said.

"It's unbelievable they would bring in MOX fuel," said Kondo. "It would be far more destructive if a big quake comes or there's a blast."

He shuffled through several decades of news clippings on the Ikata plant, including news of a cooling water leak in the 1970s, the discovery of fish with unnatural, bulging eyes in waters near Ikata in the early 1980s, and the crash of a U.S. military helicopter near the plant in the late 1980s.

He noted that Japan has yet to find a permanent disposal site for its nuclear waste. "The Japanese government still doesn't know what to with used fuel," says Kondo. "No way, no place."

Nuclear policy officials counter that pluthermal reactors are a sensible way for Japan to recycle spent fuel.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/japan/100308/japan-nuclear-power-activists