French energy group Areva said it was preparing to send nuclear fuel to Japan for the first time since the Fukushima disaster of March, 2011, a sign of possible restarts of idled Japanese reactors.
The shipment of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) is likely to be controversial in Japan, where public opposition to nuclear power and reactor restarts remains strong in the run-up to the second anniversary of the March 11, 2011 catastrophe.
The fuel will be shipped out of the port of Cherbourg in northern France in early April, according to Greenpeace, an anti-nuclear group. Areva officials declined to comment on the timing.
France's state-owned nuclear group, whose activities range from uranium mining and enrichment to reactors and waste recycling, said it was in talks with Japanese authorities to prepare a shipment, which had been delayed since the Fukushima meltdowns.
"We believe there could be half a dozen reactors which will restart at the end of 2013 (in Japan)," Areva chief executive officer Luc Oursel told a news briefing on Monday.
The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has returned to power and has said it will reassess the previous government's decision to abandon atomic power after Fukushima, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
A 2011 MOX shipment was destined for Kansai Electric Power Co's Takahama nuclear plant west of Tokyo, Chubu Electric's Hamaoka and Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima on the eastern coast, according to Greenpeace.
"We suspect that part of the shipment is destined to the same recipients," Yannick Rousselet, a Greenpeace official, said.
A spokesman at Kansai Electric said the company had no plans for any MOX fuel shipments at this time but confirmed it had been the intended recipient of the 2011 shipment from France.
Kansai Electric uses MOX fuel in the No. 3 unit at Takahama and has plans in place to start using the fuel in the No. 4 reactor there.
Chubu Electric spokesman Akio Miyazaki denied that the utility will be the recipient of the shipment. Chubu's sole nuclear plant is closed for upgrades to its tsunami defences.
A Tokyo Electric spokesman said the company had no MOX fuel shipment plan in 2011 and no plans to accept the fuel at this time.
Because MOX fuel contains around 7-per-cent plutonium, it is perceived as a national security threat, and special precautions are taken during transportation.
The Fukushima crisis prompted the gradual shutdown of all of Japan's 50 nuclear reactors until there were none left operating in May, 2012, leaving the country without atomic power for the first time since 1970.
Now two reactors at Kansai Electric's Ohi plant near Takahama are the only ones operating in Japan so far, and the country has had to resort to imports of fossil fuel to run power stations, pushing it into a record trade deficit.
The decision last June by the previous Democratic Party of Japan government to restart the two reactors weeks after the last full shutdown galvanized the previously dormant anti-nuclear movement, sparking the biggest demonstrations in decades and contributing to the party's downfall in elections in December.
Media surveys have shown a majority of Japanese want to abandon atomic energy by 2030, if not sooner, which makes it a risky proposition for the new government to restart even the reactors deemed safe.
Utilities and the government, however, are keen to reduce expensive oil and gas imports. Major manufacturers have also called on the government to restart idled nuclear plants.
(Additional reporting by James Topham in Tokyo)