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Court Upholds Japan’s OK of Nuke Reactor

May 30, 2005

TOKYO (AP) _ The Supreme Court upheld Japan’s approval of an experimental fast-breeder nuclear reactor Monday, paving the way for the reopening of a plant that was shut down a decade ago by an accident and cover-up.

Environmentalists were outaged by the ruling, which overturned a 2003 decision by a high court to nullify the government’s 1983 approval for the Monju reactor in Tsuruga, 200 miles west of Tokyo, court spokesman Takao Arakawa said.

The decision was a big boost for the plutonium-fired plant, the centerpiece in the government’s campaign to expand resource-poor Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy. The project’s original start-up ended after just four months in 1995 with an accident in its cooling system and cover-up that bred distrust of nuclear power among voters.

The Fukui regional government in February approved repairs at the mothballed plant, and construction there could allow the facility to restart within three years.

``We will resume our construction with a renewed commitment for safety,″ said Yuichi Tonozuka, president of Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute, which operates the plant.

Critics say the reactor’s plutonium-based technology is dangerous. Aileen Mioko Smith of Green Action, a Kyoto-based environmental group, called the ruling ``shocking.″

``If there’s an accident it could be disastrous,″ she said. ``We haven’t read the reasons for the court’s decision yet, but it’s astounding that the court could rule this way.″

The Monju reactor uses plutonium fuel instead of conventional uranium and produces radioactive substances than can be reused as fuel. Japanese officials hope it will increase the oil-dependent nation’s self-sufficiency.

Monju went into service in August 1995 but was shut down on Dec. 8, when more than a ton of volatile liquid sodium leaked from a secondary cooling system. No one was hurt and no radioactivity escaped, but Monju’s operators came under fire for concealing videotape that showed extensive damage to the reactor.

Many other nations have abandoned similar projects because of high costs and dangers associated with handling plutonium, which is highly radioactive and can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Japan reportedly has already spent 800 billion yen (US$7.4 billion; euro5.9 billion) on the Monju reactor.

Japan’s 52 nuclear reactors supply 35 percent of the country’s electricity. The government wants to build 11 new plants and raised electricity output to nearly 40 percent of the national supply by 2010.

The nuclear energy industry in Japan, however, has been plagued by safety violations, reactor malfunctions and accidents.

The Fukui region also was the scene of Japan’s deadliest-ever nuclear-plant accident, when a corroded cooling pipe _ carrying boiling water and superheated steam _ burst at a plant in Mihama last August, killing five workers. No radiation was released in that accident.