Third quarter of 2001

An unexpected development: Japan's MOX program postponed for at least a year

WISE-Paris, 12 June 2001

[Posted 16/07/2001]

After the Prefecture of Fukushima, where the local authorities rejected the program for introduction of MOX and created a commission of inquiry into local energy policy, the inhabitants of the small town of Kariwa, in the Prefecture of Niigata, refused to allow loading of MOX into one of the reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station, by a majority of votes cast in a referendum held on 27 May 2001. The results of this referendum may not only delay application of the MOX program until at least 2002, but could also be at the root of a rethink of Japan's choices regarding the nuclear industry.

Seizing the opportunity of the first referendum ever organized in Japan on the Pluthermal program, (1) 1,925 (53.4%) of the inhabitants of Kariwa voted "no" to the question "should MOX fuel be used?", against 1,533 (42.5%) who voted "yes". (2)

According to the most important newspaper in the area, the Niigata Nippo (28 May 2001), the referendum — which mobilized 90% of the local population — was an event which, after "around 30 years" of coexistence with nuclear power, "is truly an indication of how much they have longed for an opportunity to express their will ".

The opposition of the local population had already impelled the site operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), to delay the loading of 28 MOX fuel assemblies from Belgonucléaire into the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa 3 reactor, planned during the shutdown for maintenance and loading between 17 May and 13 July 2001.

In spite of the fact that they invested heavily in a campaign of explanation, the Japanese government and TEPCO were not able to convince the inhabitants of Kariwa. The lobbying around the referendum included doorstep distribution of brochures, visits to the village by the Minister of Education and Science and by the head of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, and a visit from the CEO of TEPCO to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa site to explain the necessity for the MOX program to employees from the region. (3)

The government and TEPCO —now "in a difficult situation" (4)— have declared that they will continue to strive to convince the inhabitants of Kariwa of the firm basis for the MOX program. On 28 May 2001, Japan's Prime Minister, Mr. Junichiro Koizumi, declared that "the outcome (was) most likely the result of people wavering between concerns about the safety of nuclear power generation and necessity". He added that "the government (needed) to determine what it can do to convince the public of the need for nuclear energy". The CEO of TEPCO, Mr. Nobuya Minami, declared himself disappointed by the results of the referendum, which, in his view, could influence the future of the MOX program. (5)

The mayor of Kariwa, who gave his approval in March 1999, is called upon to review his position. The wish of the inhabitants of the village should normally be respected. Attention is already turning to the mayor of Kariwa, Hiroo Shinada, and the governor of Niigata, Masao Hirayama, who have to take account of the results of the referendum, even though these are not binding.

The outcome is all the more important as other areas are falling prey to doubt. Masazumi Saikawa, mayor of the neighboring town of Kashiwazaki, declared that it was "now difficult to continue", (5) whereas in Kashima, in the Prefecture of Shimane, voices are being raised in the wake of the referendum, requesting more information on the MOX program.

Niigata is the second Prefecture in Japan to question the MOX program. The Governor of Fukushima, Mr. Eisaku Sato, in fact, refused to approve the program at the session of the Prefectoral Parliament of 26 February 2001, which adopted a one-year moratorium to reconsider the question. Mr. Sato gave his approval in 1998, then reversed his decision, thus obliging TEPCO to delay loading of MOX fuel planned initially for the Fukushima I-3 inspection period, which should have started in April. The Governor explained that the local population had expressed doubts as to the overall energy policy of the national government. (2)

In fact, the trauma following the accident at Tokaimura, on 30 September 1999 (see 'Criticality Accident at a Uranium Conversion Facility at Tokai-Mura, Japan'), the BNFL scandal (see 'The UK Government was informed by BNFL as early as 10 September 1999 of potential problems with the Japanese MOX fuel quality control') and that at Belgonucléaire in 1999 (see 'Belgonucleaire hit by quality-control default suspicion'), over falsification of quality control documents, has seriously shaken the confidence of the Japanese.

A Fukushima Energy Policy Review Committee was created on 21 May 2001 to reconsider the energy policy in the Prefecture. The 15 members of the review committee will have the task of analyzing the present situation of the nuclear sector from all angles, including those of economics and safety. (2)

With this delay to its program and following the announcement by Mr. Sato regarding new fiscal measures, TEPCO decided, on 8 February 2001, to freeze its project for building of two new reactors on the Hirono site, thus penalizing Fukushima to the tune of around 2.4 billion yen in taxes, knowing that its main source of revenue is the fiscal levies on the nuclear industry.


  1. Japanese term designating use of MOX (mixture of plutonium and uranium oxides) in light-water reactors
  2. See In Briefs on Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, Tokyo website:
  3. Kumamoto NichiNichi Newspaper, 29 May 2001: Japanese-English translation by Green Action, Kyoto
  4. Niigata Nippo, 28 May 2001: Japanese-English translation by Green Action, Kyoto
  5. Asahi-Shimbun, 29 May 2001, English version

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