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Nuclear Fuel Leaves Japan for U.K.

July 5, 2002

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TOKYO (AP) _ Japan defended its decision Friday to transport nuclear fuel to Britain by sea, denying criticism that the shipment was vulnerable to terrorist attack or could be used for making nuclear weapons.

The shipment of 560 pounds of rejected reactor fuel, a mixture of plutonium and uranium known as MOX, left the Japanese port of Takahama on its two-month journey Thursday.

The radioactive material was being taken back to its maker in Britain on the Pacific Pintail, a cargo ship armed with deck-mounted machine guns. The route the ship and another armed companion vessel will take, and other security details, have not been made public.

``We have done everything necessary to secure the shipment, and we are confident about it,″ said Tetsuya Kitajima, a spokesman for Kansai Electric Power Co.

That did not stop protesters from demanding the shipment be halted.

A small group of demonstrators rallied at the port where the ship embarked on its trip Thursday. On Friday, two Greenpeace protesters scaled the roof of the Japanese embassy in Canberra, Australia and unfurled a banner criticizing the shipment.

The protesters _ about a dozen in all _ parked a truck carrying a large cardboard imitation nuclear bomb in front of the building.

Kansai Electric imported the fuel in 1999 for an experimental nuclear power program. But the fuel’s maker, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., later admitted it had falsified quality records and agreed to ship the fuel back to Britain.

The original shipment to Japan was widely criticized by environmental groups and government officials in Australia, New Zealand and some Pacific island nations.

Opponents said not enough was done to ensure the safety of the cargo, and urged Japan to provide military escorts. They also say the shipments are an attractive target for terrorists.

Though not weapons grade, the fuel is dangerous because it could still easily be transformed for use in nuclear weapons, Greenpeace activist Shaun Burnie said Friday.

``It’s no more complicated than making designer drugs,″ he said.

But Japanese officials and an independent nuclear expert strongly denied that.

Yutaka Ikoma, an official with the government’s Resources and Energy Agency, which oversees nuclear policy, said it is virtually impossible to use the material for bombs.

``Plutonium for reactor use and weapons use is completely different,″ he said. ``Weapons-grade plutonium must be more than 90 percent pure, this fuel is only about 4 or 5 percent (pure).″

Naomi Shono, a physics professor at Hiroshima Jogakuin University, said it would theoretically be possible to use the plutonium for weapons.

``But the money and technical skill that it would be required make that possibly extremely unrealistic,″ he said.

Resource-poor Japan aims to use MOX fuel at up to 18 nuclear reactors, out of a total 52 commercial plants, by the year 2010.

A group of 10 power utilities plans to build its own $967 million MOX fuel processing plant in northern Japan by 2009.

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