Japan’s nuclear power industry today holds a very large amount of spent nuclear fuel that has accumulated over 38 years of nuclear energy production. The question is what should be done with this radioactive waste? There are two basic options: One is to recycle spent fuel through reprocessing; the other is to dispose of it directly by burying it deep underground.

The conclusion by a policy panel of the Atomic Energy Commission is that the present fuel-recycling policy should be continued. The panel says reprocessing is better than disposal for a variety of reasons, including the stability it gives energy supplies, the lack of environmental risks and the flexibility it affords energy policy. In other words, reprocessing amounts to recognition of the reality that fuel recycling is the only feasible way to keep nuclear plants running.

At present, there are 52 nuclear reactors across the country, accounting for more than one-third of Japan’s total electricity output. It is estimated that about 60 reactors may be needed in the future to achieve the twin objectives of maintaining stable energy supplies and preventing global warming through a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

The nuclear fuel cycle involves extracting plutonium and uranium from spent fuel and reprocessing both into fresh fuel. How spent fuel is regarded depends on the method used to deal with it. Under the reprocessing method, it is seen as something useful; in the disposal method, it is viewed as waste material. Which method is more economical is another question.

Reprocessing has been an integral part of Japan’s nuclear energy program, although the actual work has been done at British and French facilities. The panel’s decision makes it certain that domestic reprocessing will begin in due course at a plant now under construction in the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. In 2000, batches of spent fuel from power plants across the country began arriving at the plant’s fuel pool. Now, 1,000 tons of spent fuel are stored there awaiting reprocessing.

The Rokkasho plant is being built by a consortium of electric power companies at a cost of 2.2 trillion yen. If everything goes according to plan, the facility will go into operation in 2006. Preparations reportedly have been almost completed for uranium tests in the runup to a test operation.

In economic terms, however, disposal has a definite advantage over reprocessing, according to a cost comparison by the panel’s technical subcommittee. The study shows that reprocessing is 50 to 80 percent more expensive than disposal. This works out to an increase in electricity bills of 600 yen to 840 yen a year per household.

The economic factor is important, but there is a compelling reason to complete the reprocessing project in Rokkasho. If the project is canceled, the relationship of trust between the nuclear industry and Aomori Prefecture will collapse, possibly leading to the suspension of spent-fuel shipments to the Rokkasho plant. As a result, power plants holding spent fuel in excess of their storage capacity could be forced to halt operation in several years’ time.

Moreover, other cost estimates show different results. It is assumed that changing the reprocessing program in favor of disposal will entail enormous costs. If these additional costs are included, operating the reprocessing plant as scheduled will be less expensive than depositing nuclear waste in underground storage facilities.

The cost issue aside, the reprocessing formula faces various obstacles. The biggest problem is that the operation of the Monju experimental fast-breeder reactor — the “dream reactor” that produces more plutonium than it consumes — has been suspended since a 1995 accident (coolant leakage). As things stand, prospects for commercial operation are dim. So the only alternative is the “pluthermal” program, which is designed to burn plutonium at existing plants.

To run the program, it is necessary to build a plant for producing fuel known as MOX (a mixture of plutonium and uranium oxides). It is also necessary to set up temporary storage facilities for spent fuel in excess of reprocessing capacity. It remains to be seen whether the Rokkasho plant will be able to reprocess 800 tons of spent fuel a year as scheduled.

The policy debate is over, for now at least, but the road ahead looks tortuous. The challenge for the government and the nuclear industry is to make steady efforts to develop the reprocessing and pluthermal programs with priority given to public disclosure and nuclear safety. At the same time, they would do well to maintain sufficient policy flexibility to explore other options, such as making better use of storage facilities and disposing of some spent fuel.

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