The government’s decision to host an international project to build the next-generation thermonuclear experimental reactor in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, lacks a critical element: public understanding. The decision, prompted by a group of Liberal Democratic Party legislators promoting nuclear fusion energy, represents a triumph of political judgment over scientific opinion.
The dubious conclusion suggests a covert relationship between politicians and bureaucrats — the same kind of connections that allegedly contributed to foreign-aid irregularities involving the Northern Territories and to the inept handling of mad cow disease. The government owes the public a convincing explanation of why Rokkasho has been selected.
Originally, the international thermonuclear experimental reactor, or INTER, had been expected to be constructed at Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, where the Atomic Energy Research Institute already has a large-scale nuclear fusion experimental unit (JT60). The town is also the center of INTER design. A government-commissioned scientific study had favored Naka.
The selection of Rokkasho appears to reflect Aomori Prefecture’s controversial nuclear-fuel recycling facilities, including a deficit-plagued reprocessing plant. It is difficult not to assume that the prospective site of an international scientific project has been selected out of political consideration for the troubled domestic program for nuclear-energy development.
Establishing a nuclear-fuel cycle is the basic course of Japan’s nuclear-energy development policy. But prospects for the so-called pluthermal program for recycling plutonium fuel remain uncertain. The Rokkasho reprocessing plant, to be completed at an estimated cost of 2 trillion yen or more, looms as a financial albatross around the neck of the electric-power industry.
It would seem that Aomori’s cooperation — in the form of hosting the INTER project at Rokkasho — is needed to put off problems in nuclear-energy development and utilization. Industrial circles, including power companies, had strongly favored the village as the prospective site.
The government gives two reasons for its choice of Rokkasho. First, the area has the potential to become an international nuclear-energy base. Second, radioactive waste from the experimental reactor would be processed in the prefecture. Still, these explanations leave many questions unanswered.
The most important question is whether nuclear fusion, the source of solar energy, can be harnessed on a commercial basis. Many experts doubt that. Given the present level of technology, it will be difficult to develop a commercial thermonuclear reactor. The United States gave up on INTER design in the late 1990s because of its poor prospects.
The INTER experiment is designed primarily to produce and burn plasma, a high-temperature gas — not to generate electricity. Experts say commercial production may be 50 to 100 years away. If so, the idea of a future energy center is premature at the least. Promoting solar-energy research would be a more realistic way to solve the energy problem.
Second, thermonuclear fusion involves the use of tritium, a radioactive isotope that is said to be difficult to handle, although the process itself is thought to be safer and cleaner than the existing nuclear plant. Another problem cited is that devices are susceptible to radioactive exposure from the production of neutrons in the fusion reaction. What is more, the fusion process is likely to generate more low-level waste than the conventional process.
According to plans in the works, the experimental reactor probably will be completed around 2015 and operated for 20 years thereafter. But the operation will produce a large amount of radioactive waste. The project may bring some economic benefits to Aomori, as the business community there hopes it will, but it will also come with a price.
Hosting the project is expected to cost 700 billion yen, more than twice the amount Japan will need to pay if the nation does not host it. Japan has already spent a mind-boggling sum on a number of large-scale nuclear projects, but with little success to show for it. Spending snowballed, for example, due to delays in the projects for the prototype fast-breeder reactor Monju and the nuclear-powered ship Mutsu.
Japan’s fiscal crisis requires that it spend money wisely and effectively. The question that needs to be asked — providing the INTER project is really necessary — is whether Rokkasho is the best place for it. Three other nations — France, Spain and Canada — are lining up to host the project. Selection must be based primarily on scientific analysis, not political or even economic consideration. Luring this project is not the same as inviting an international extravaganza like the Olympics.
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