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Japan reactor delayed 2 years in blow to plutonium reduction

New safety standards push back Oma plant's start date to 2026

A fuel rod is inserted into the reactor vessel inside the No. 1 reactor at Kyushu Electric Power's Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture.    © AP

AOMORI/TOKYO -- A nuclear power plant in northern Japan designed to use recycled fuel has been pushed back by two years and will not start operation until at least 2026, marking a major setback for the country's commitment to drawing down its plutonium stockpile.

Tuesday's announcement by Electric Power Development constitutes the third construction delay for the Oma plant. It comes amid heightened international scrutiny of Japan's plutonium holdings, a product of the resource-poor country's effort to create a self-sustaining energy supply.

The utility, also known as J-Power, cited a time-consuming screening process based on safety standards revised after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. J-Power had hoped to resume work late this year.

Plant construction began in 2008, but was paused after the Fukushima meltdowns. The work is less than 40% complete.

Earthquake- and tsunami-related assessments have made progress, but the screening for the plant itself has not begun, Executive Vice President Akihito Urashima reported to Ikuo Sasaki, vice governor of Aomori Prefecture, where the facility is located.

Hitachi is building the Oma nuclear reactor in northern Japan. Construction began in 2008 and has been repeatedly delayed.   © AP

J-Power President Toshifumi Watanabe had said in January the company would do everything possible to keep the start of operation around fiscal 2024 as planned.

Tokyo and the power industry have high hopes for Oma, which is being built by Japanese industrial group Hitachi. The plant will use mixed-oxide fuel, which combines uranium with plutonium from spent fuel. One reactor at Oma could consume 1.1 tons of plutonium yearly compared with 0.4 ton at a conventional reactor, which can be loaded up to only one-third capacity with mixed-oxide fuel.

Japan possesses about 47 tons of plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel, much of it stored outside the country. Under a nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S., Japan is allowed to extract plutonium from fissile material for power generation. Japan is the only country without nuclear weapons to be granted this exception to nonproliferation rules.

Amid international attention as the U.S. pushes North Korea to denuclearize, Japan has pledged to cut its plutonium holdings.

Plans call for using mixed-oxide fuel in 16 to 18 Japanese nuclear reactors, but only four are operating.

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