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Japanese utilities ended funding for nuclear fuel reprocessing in 2016, putting MOX program in doubt

Kyodo

Utilities that operate nuclear power plants stopped funding the reprocessing of nuclear fuel in fiscal 2016, their financial reports showed Sunday, a step that may affect resource-scarce Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling policy.

The 10 utilities, including Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. and Japan Atomic Power Co., apparently halted allocating reserve funds for reprocessing costs due to the huge expenses linked to building the reprocessing facilities, sources said.

The government, along with the power companies, has been pushing for the reuse of mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel, which is created from plutonium and uranium extracted from spent fuel.

While Japan has not changed its policy on spent fuel reprocessing, the outlook for it has remained uncertain since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. At the same time, the government’s latest energy plan in July also stated for the first time that disposal of spent MOX fuel as waste can be considered.

If MOX fuel cannot be reprocessed, nuclear fuel can only be reused once.

For the reprocessing of spent MOX fuel, the utilities had allocated about ¥230 billion in reserves as of March 2016.

Currently, only two reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama power plant, one reactor at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant and one reactor at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Genkai power plant use MOX fuel in so-called pluthermal power generation.

As Japan has decided to cut its stockpile of plutonium, the government and utilities aim to increase plants for pluthermal generation. But if spent MOX fuel is not reprocessed, it would be considered nuclear waste, raising concerns over how to deal with it.

Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. — in which power companies have invested — has been pursuing the construction of a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in northeastern Japan as well as a MOX fuel fabrication plant, with the costs coming to about ¥16 trillion.

But a series of problems has resulted in their delay. When operational, the Rokkasho plant in Aomori Prefecture, key to Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle policy, can reprocess up to 800 tons of spent nuclear fuel per year, extracting about 8 tons of plutonium.

With this setback, if new MOX reprocessing plants are to be built, it would be hard to secure further funding.