Trust main issue at Kyoto power talks

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

KYOTO — Power utility officials from six countries convened here Wednesday to discuss issues related to public trust, renewing questions over Japan’s controversial fast-breeder reactor program, which the government counts on as a key source of energy in the future.

During the so-called E7 conference, Isamu Miyazaki, chairman of Kansai Electric Power Co., defended the program, despite the major social distrust it has generated. “The fast-breeder program is important to meet Japan’s future energy needs,” Miyazaki said at the conference.

The E7 includes eight power companies — seven initial members from Japan, France, Germany, Italy and Canada, and one from the United States. They meet once a year to discuss various industry issues.

Japan’s fast-breeder program, which uses plutonium instead of uranium as fuel, has been a major issue of controversy following the December 1995 sodium leak at the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture.

That accident and attempted coverup by the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. (PNC), led to strong public distrust of the nation’s nuclear power policy. This, plus subsequent accidents and coverups, eventually led to the dissolution of PNC, which was replaced by the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute.

Monju remains shut down, but the institute hopes to restart it at some future date. Although both the Japanese government and utilities remain committed to the fast-breeder program, the overseas E7 participants said their own experience had shown such reactors are more trouble than they are worth. “France is abandoning its fast-breeder reactor program because of economic and safety concerns. In the nuclear power industry, there is a split between advocates of plutonium reactors and conventional nuclear power,” said a French delegate who declined to be named.

The delegate went on to say, “We are receiving signals from the Japanese that they, too, are quietly backing away from the fast-breeder program because of the costs and social concerns.” The original idea behind fast-breeder reactors was a constantly renewable source of energy that would be cheaper than uranium.

Three decades ago, other countries, including Britain and the United States, had fast-breeder reactor programs as well. But they abandoned them due to higher than expected costs and strong public opposition. Thus, by the mid-1990s, only France and Japan had plutonium reactors.

Less controversial among the E7 members is Japan’s plan to use mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX, probably because other member states are already using it. Unlike the pure plutonium used in fast-breeder reactors, MOX is composed of both uranium and plutonium. It can be used in conventional reactors and is seen by many nuclear experts as a safer and less controversial source of fuel.

As Motoya Kimura, an energy policy researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute, points out, the Japanese government has been giving strong and continuous support for MOX programs.

The use of MOX, however, still remains subject to much public skepticism in Japan, where it will be put to its first commercial use in October at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant in Fukushima Prefecture.

In March 1997, a fire and explosion occurred at the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. PNC officials, who were not trained in emergency procedures, then falsified reports and covered up evidence about the accident, which exposed some workers to radiation.

In addition, concerns over the safety of reprocessed nuclear waste coming into Japan remains high. In March, a British freighter arrived in Aomori Prefecture from France with 30 tons of such waste. Permission to enter port was delayed by the governor due to strong local protests.

Casks used to ship MOX also raised concerns when the maker of their protective shield falsified data relating to its makeup.

Kepco plans to start using MOX next year at its power plant in Fukui Prefecture, and the Nuclear Safety Commission, a government advisory panel, has already declared its safety. Still, local residents remain skeptical.