Takahama (Japan): A vessel under armed guard and loaded with reprocessed nuclear fuel from France arrived at a Japanese port on Thursday, the first such shipment since the Fukushima disaster as utilities lobby to restart their atomic reactors.
The cargo of mixed oxide (MOX), a blend of plutonium and uranium, arrived at the Takahama nuclear plant on the western coast of central Japan in early morning, a journalist said.
The fuel left the French port of Cherbourg in mid April bound for Japan, French nuclear group Areva has said. The vessel was specially fitted to be able to transport nuclear material and was escorted by an armed sister ship.
Its route was not fully disclosed, but the ship was greeted by protesters and national media which captured images of the vessel from land and helicopters overhead.
Dozens of anti-nuclear campaigners voiced their opposition with loudspeakers.
"We do not accept MOX fuel," a protester shouted, wearing full radiation protection gear to make his point.
Residents of areas hosting Japan`s atomic reactors are deeply divided over nuclear plants. They are often the backbone of regional economies but the memory of Fukushima remains raw two years after the world`s worst nuclear accident in a generation.
Japan has few energy resources of its own and relied on nuclear power for nearly one-third of its domestic electricity needs until the meltdowns at the tsunami-crippled plant.
All but two of the country`s 50 nuclear reactors are offline, shuttered for routine safety checks in the aftermath of the disaster and never restarted because of public resistance and new standards.
Uranium reactors produce a mixture of depleted uranium and plutonium as a by-product of fission.
These can be re-processed into MOX fuel, which can then be used in other reactors to generate more power.
Japan has built its own nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, in northern Aomori prefecture, but its opening has been delayed by a series of minor accidents and technical problems.
This has left Tokyo dependent on other countries -- namely Britain and France -- to deal with the plutonium it has produced.
Plutonium can be diverted for producing nuclear weapons, and there are fears that it could fall into the wrong hands and pose a danger from rogue regimes or extremist organisations.
According to a government report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Japan has about 44.3 tonnes of plutonium, of which 35.0 tonnes are held and being processed in France and Britain, and the rest, 9.3 tonnes is stored in Japan.