Nuclear fuel report just another coverup?

Revelations that the government apparently buried for a decade a report that says reprocessing spent atomic fuel is much more expensive than burying it is causing a political furor that industry analysts say may pull the plug on the nation’s nuclear recycling policy.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and its predecessor, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, sat for a decade on the internal estimates, which indicate the cost to bury nuclear waste is lower than recycling it. The government instead pursued a policy under which all spent nuclear fuel would be reprocessed for plutonium to be reused as fuel.

In March, Kazumasa Kusaka, then director general of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, told the House of Councilors Budget Committee, “Japan has not made any cost estimates for (the option of) not reprocessing” spent fuel.

The comments came in response to a question from Mizuho Fukushima, head of the Social Democratic Party.

However, Kusaka’s claim was not true.

MITI prepared a report, which a ministry working group discussed in 1994, showing the cost of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is “two to four times higher” than burying it.

But it appears that neither the government nor the power industry wanted the information made public.

An industry source quoted an executive of an electric power company, who was a member of the 1994 working group, as saying the estimate should not be released because “if the estimate is released and found to be very expensive, it would pull the rug out from under the (nuclear fuel) recycling business.”

The source also said an executive of the now-defunct Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. also expressed caution about releasing the estimate, quoting him as saying, “Consideration should be given to the way in which the estimate is made public.”

At the time, Masaya Yasui was a member of the working group’s secretariat and prepared meeting agendas.

The former head of the agency’s Nuclear Power Policy Division also drafted Kusaka’s replies at the Upper House committee meeting. He maintains that he cannot remember whether the working group looked at the estimate.

Yet similar estimates were made by the then Science and Technology Agency and the Federation of Electric Power Companies. Although the calculation methods and time periods differ, both estimates show it is less expensive to bury spent nuclear fuel.

Anger flared at a July 8 meeting of the Atomic Energy Commission, an advisory body to the prime minister, when excuses were given for nondisclosure of the government report.

“Do you expect us to believe that (relevant) documents were found in a locker when officials started searching for them?” asked Michiyo Watanabe, a Japanese Consumers Co-operative Union executive. “Beyond being angry, we are simply flabbergasted.”

“For the past 10 years, we’ve wasted an opportunity to discuss whether spent nuclear fuel should be recycled or directly disposed of,” Kyushu University professor Hisashi Yoshioka said, adding authorities “might have wanted to avoid full-scale debate regarding direct disposal.”

Another irate commission member charged that 20 years had been wasted.

“Since the 1980s, officials involved have been aware of the fact that reprocessing is not economical, but the Science and Technology Agency stuck to (the idea of) reprocessing,” the member said. “The electric power industry also simply believed that the cost (of reprocessing) could be tacked onto electricity bills.”

Officials of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency and the Federation of Electric Power Companies were also on the defensive at a July 12 meeting of the prefectural assembly in Aomori, which is home to nuclear fuel recycling facilities.

The meeting was held to study the draft of a safety agreement for trial operations using depleted uranium at the reprocessing plant in the village of Rokkasho.

But the participants, including members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, used the discussion to attack the central government on the cost-estimate issue.

“People in the prefecture are increasingly distrustful of the government’s nuclear policy,” one legislator said. Another said, “We cannot promise cooperation.”

In Ehime Prefecture, where Shikoku Electric Power Co. plans to launch a so-called pluthermal, or plutonium-thermal, project to burn plutonium at its Ikata nuclear plant, there is also resistance to the recycling program, which has been dogged by scandal.

Kyoko Ono, an official of a citizens’ group opposed to the plant, said, “The prefecture (is) angry over the hiding of the estimate (and) should take a tough stance toward the central government and protect its people.”

Katsumi Kuruba of Fukui Prefecture’s general affairs division was also critical of the central government. Fukui is home to 15 reactors, including the ill-fated Monju fast-breeder reactor, a cornerstone in the fuel recycling program that has been shut down for almost a decade after a sodium leak accident and subsequent coverup.

The decision of how spent fuel should be disposed of “should not be decided by cost alone,” he said.

“It is a fact that the central government has been trying to avoid debate in the pursuit of its nuclear policy to protect (the reprocessing plant in) Aomori Prefecture.”

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