The cost of recycling spent nuclear fuel has surged since Japan began using it in 1999, raising questions about the viability of the reprocessing strategy, it has been learned.
Japan is the only non-nuclear weapons state in the world that still engaged in a commercial spent-fuel reprocessing program. While it struggles to keep its nuclear power program sustainable by burning the recycled hybrid fuel called mixed oxide, or MOX, this has resulted in a stockpile of nearly 50 tons of plutonium.
This stockpile, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, has caused international concern.
The MOX fuel is produced by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and reusing the extracted plutonium and uranium as fresh fuel. Japan’s utilities send their spent nuclear fuel to France for reprocessing. The problem is that only a few reactors in Japan are currently using MOX.
According to data from the Finance Ministry and other sources, the price of one MOX fuel unit imported in 1999 by Tokyo Electric (now Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.) was ¥230 million ($2 million).
The price of the recycled fuel that Kansai Electric Power Co. bought in September 2016, however, exceeded ¥1 billion.
While power firms do not disclose MOX costs, sources familiar with the fuel recycling business said the price includes the cost of transport, private security and insurance.
With many nuclear plants shut due to the safety concerns raised by the 2011 Fukushima disaster, only three plants — two Kansai Electric reactors and one Shikoku Electric Power Co. reactor — now use MOX in the so-called pluthermal power generation program.
Since the pluthermal project is the only way for the nation to consume its plutonium stockpile, it has declined only slightly since the three reactors were started.