, OMAEZAKI, May 18 – An armed vessel with a load of recycled nuclear fuel from France arrived amid heavy security Monday at a Japanese port where it was greeted by dozens of protesters.
The Pacific Heron — carrying a British police team to head off possible hijackers on its secretive two-month voyage — delivered a load of mixed-oxide or MOX fuel, a blend of plutonium and reprocessed uranium.
Several dozen anti-nuclear activists and residents rallied at a pier of the Omaezaki fishing port as the cargo ship docked under heavy police guard and cranes unloaded metal containers of the nuclear fuel.
Environmental group Greenpeace has called the cargo, which left France in March, "the largest shipment of plutonium in history," saying the 1.8 tonnes would be enough to make 225 nuclear weapons.
The Pacific Heron is believed to have travelled around Africa, escorted by a second ship, the Pacific Pintail, which was not seen in the port.
Dozens of Coast Guard ships patrolled nearby and helicopters circled in the sky as the ship unloaded the MOX. The material was loaded onto three trucks and taken to the nearby coastal Hamaoka nuclear plant.
Plant officials invited journalists to watch as workers took radiation readings of the metal casks carrying the nuclear fuel, with one declaring: "It’s certainly safe to be close to this cask."
Japan has few energy resources of its own and relies on nuclear power from 53 plants for nearly one third of its domestic electricity needs.
The country also suffers some 20 percent of the world’s most powerful earthquakes, and anti-nuclear activists say relying on atomic power in a tectonically unstable country is a catastrophic accident waiting to happen.
"Using the MOX fuel at the nuclear plant here is suicidal," said Yoshika Shiratori, 76, one of the leaders of a local activist group.
"Once a big earthquake hits and a deadly tsunami gulps up the nuclear plant, there is no doubt this entire bay, the Pacific Ocean and all the seas around Japan would become contaminated."
The two vessels will continue their journey from the port in central Shizuoka prefecture to two other piers at nuclear plants in southwestern Japan.
Three Japanese power companies — Kyushu Electric, Shikoku Electric and Chubu Electric, which runs the Hamaoka plant — ordered the MOX fuel, which was recycled by French nuclear giant Areva.
"Chubu Electric is saying that using MOX is like driving a car with better gasoline, but if an accident occurs the damage would not even be comparable to what they use now," said environmental campaigner Eiichi Nagano, 88.
"Plutonium is a highly toxic substance," he said. "We are most concerned about an earthquake that could hit the nuclear facility."
Public concerns about nuclear power in earthquake-prone Japan mounted in 2007 when a major quake caused a fire and a small radiation leak at the world’s biggest nuclear plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa northwest of Tokyo.
Japan has obtained MOX before — the last shipment was eight years ago — but none has been used in the country due to a data cover-up scandal and a series of accidents at nuclear plants.
Another protester, Lutheran Church pastor Shingo Naito, 48, said he was concerned Japan may be stacking up plutonium for military use.
"We are afraid that central government politicians may want to arm Japan with nuclear weapons," he said, referring to some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party including former finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa.
Nakagawa has said Japan, despite its post-World War II pacifist constitution, should start discussing acquiring nuclear weapons to deter threats from the nuclear-armed communist state of North Korea.
Japan has built its own nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in northern Aomori prefecture, but its opening has been delayed after a series of minor accidents stirred up objections from the local community.