ROKKASHO, Japan (AFP) — Hundreds of Japanese anti-nuclear activists protested Saturday as French Prime Minister Francois Fillon toured a new atomic facility here built in partnership between the two nations.
The plant in the northern region of Aomori is expected to begin operations next month, but critics charge that it poses an environmental safety risk and could also be vulnerable to an earthquake.
Undaunted, Fillon said Paris and Tokyo, which are major nuclear supporters, should seek to vaunt the benefits of sharing that technology with developing nations too.
"It is important France and Japan are the spokesnations of the reasonable use of nuclear on a global scale," he told reporters.
He said refusing emerging economies access to civil nuclear rights would be "a political mistake."
"Step by step, by respecting all the security rules, we would like to bring developing nations toward mastery of these technologies," he added. "It is a very important political trend."
Fillon said he hoped Paris and Tokyo would be able to press for a "common action in favour of civilian nuclear energy" at a July summit of the G8 group of the world's leading industrialised nations, which Japan is hosting.
Some 700 protesters rallied in Aomori, the main town in the prefecture of the same name and near Rokkasho, where the facility was built by Japan Nuclear Fuel (JNFL) and France's nuclear giant Areva.
The nuclear reprocessing plant is "the biggest and most dangerous obstacle to directing Japan towards a safe and clean energy future," the environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement.
"Areva is aggressively promoting nuclear power expansion despite the risks, poor value for money and ineffectiveness in combating problems such as climate change," it added.
Protesters also worried about a possibly active quake faultline.
A major quake could trigger "an enormous amount of radiation leakage (that) will affect not only local residents here, but also the global environment," said Koji Asaishi, a lawyer involved in four lawsuits focused on the possible existence of an active faultline.
A map published by Japan's Active Fault Research Center does not specify a faultline in Rokkasho, but shows at least seven in Aomori Prefecture.
Last year, a quake last year measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale killed 14 people and damaged the world's largest nuclear power plant northwest of Tokyo, which leaked tiny amounts of radiation.
That plant currently remains shut for inspections.
Japan lacks virtually any natural energy sources of its own and relies on nuclear power for about one-third of its needs despite public opposition over safety concerns in the only nation to have been attacked with atomic bombs.
Trade minister Akira Amari said the Rokkasho plant was essential.
"As the head of Japan's energy policy and a politician who believes in the future of nuclear energy, I feel deeply grateful to the people in Japan and France who have worked for the plant," he said, adding that it met extremely high safety standards.
Areva inked a deal here Friday to expand a business alliance with Japanese industrial giant Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to provide nuclear fuel for reactors.
"What was signed confirms the common strategy between France and Japan" in terms of civilian nuclear energy, Fillon told reporters here.
Areva also announced agreements earlier this week worth two billion euros (3.2 billion dollars) with Japanese firms.
In recent months, France has signed deals in civilian nuclear cooperation with Algeria, Libya and the United Arab Emirates, which are first steps before studying the possibility of nuclear power stations.
"If we are unable to find -- thanks to science -- a means to bring to these inhabitants the energy they need to develop, then we will be forced to prepare for very gloomy days," Fillon warned.
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