The government commission reviewing the nation’s long-term atomic energy plan has come up with a proposal to maintain the current policy of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, panel sources said Sunday.

If adopted during Friday’s meeting of the Atomic Energy Commission to draw up a new atomic energy plan, it would give the green light for the new plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, to start tests using uranium this year and begin operations in 2006.

Amid heated criticism that it is more economical to bury the spent fuel, a majority of commission members have concluded that reprocessing is the better option considering energy security and the environment, the sources said.

The conclusion will be presented at the meeting as a proposal from the secretariat.

Commission members who are critical of the reprocessing policy are also expected to submit various alternate policy proposals for discussion, according to he sources.

Since June, the commission evaluated four scenarios: reprocessing all spent fuel, reprocessing some of the fuel, burying all spent fuel underground without processing, and storing the fuel while deciding on a policy later.

The option of reprocessing has an advantage given the research that has been done so far. For burial or storage, there is the possibility of having to shut down nuclear reactors when spent fuel cannot be removed due to difficulty in finding a disposal site, the sources said.

However, some 200 tons of spent nuclear fuel will be left untouched every year under the Rokkasho plant’s reprocessing capacity. The proposal leaves open the option of direct burial of some of the spent fuel or the current plan of building another reprocessing facility.

From an economic standpoint, electricity costs would be 600 yen to 840 yen lower per household if spent fuel is buried instead of reprocessed. However, the panel’s proponents of reprocessing say the extra cost would be acceptable, according to the sources.

But even if the government can overcome opposition and continue its policy to reprocess spent fuel, the plan still faces various obstacles as a result of past accidents at nuclear facilities.

The development of a fast-breeder nuclear reactor, which is essential to maximize the advantage of reprocessing spent fuel, has been suspended since a 1995 sodium coolant leak at the Monju experimental plant in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture.

Moreover, the plan of full-fledged operations of using reprocessed fuel in light- water reactors around 2010 is also not proceeding as it is difficult to gain the support of local residents following a spate of nuclear-related scandals and accidents.

There are also concerns of whether the reprocessing plant, at a scale which Japan has had no experience in operating before, can be operated safely.

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