TOKYO, Jan. 14 (Xinhua) -- Spent plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) has been removed from a nuclear power plant in western Japan, marking the first time the country has conducted such an operation, the plant's operator said Tuesday.
According to Shikoku Electric Power Co., one of 16 MOX fuel rods was removed from its Ikata plant's No. 3 reactor at around noon on Monday as part of the ongoing maintenance work.
Shikoku Electric has said that as well as replacing the control unit of the No. 3 unit's reactor in Ehime Prefecture, it will also add five new MOX fuel rods ahead of the planned restart of the reactor and commercial operations, which are set to begin again towards the end of April next year.
The removed MOX fuel rods will be stored in a cooling pool at the plant, the utility said, although with no facility to reprocess the fuel, the utility has yet to explain where the final location of the used fuel will be.
The Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), meanwhile, under pressure from the international community, has been looking to a process called the plutonium-thermal (pluthermal) power generation as a means of reducing Japan's stockpiles of plutonium.
Japan is the only country without nuclear weapons that is allowed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and has enough plutonium to theoretically make about 6,000 plutonium-cored atomic bombs.
But following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the worst such crisis since Chernobyl in 1986, the majority of Japan's nuclear reactors were taken offline for safety inspections amid widespread public opposition over the safety of the aged plants.
After Japan's nuclear watchdog imposed tighter safety requirements on the plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, some utilities have been slowly rebooting their reactors after implementing extensive safety upgrades and passing tougher safety inspections.
In the wake of Japan actively trying to reduce its stockpiles, the government announced in 2018 a concrete goal of decreasing the total volume of plutonium, which is stockpiled both in Japan and overseas, from the current 47 tons.
The stockpiles, under the government's plan, must be reduced before a reprocessing facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, goes online in 2021 to extract plutonium.
The JAEC in 2018 issued new plutonium guidelines to try to reduce the nation's stockpiles, with restrictions placed on the Rokkasho facility so that it can only produce the amount of plutonium required for MOX fuel needed for Japan's nuclear plants.
The JAEC's overall time-frame for lowering Japan's plutonium stockpiles by pluthermal power generation, however, still remains uncertain.