The Atomic Energy Commission is expected to adopt a long-term nuclear program by the end of the month. In its draft, the commission has stated its desire to continue its policy of establishing a nuclear-fuel cycle that reprocesses all the spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium for future use as nuclear fuel. A fast-breeder reactor, which produces more fissile material (plutonium 239) than it consumes, will play an important role in the nuclear-fuel cycle. The program will serve as the basis of the nation’s nuclear policy for the coming decade, but it raises issues that need to be addressed.

The draft proposes that nuclear-power plants generate 30 to 40 percent or more of the nation’s total electric-power supply from 2030. Nuclear-generated electricity used to account for about one-third of the total supply. But its share declined from 34 percent in fiscal 2002 to 26 percent in fiscal 2003, then rose to 29 percent in fiscal 2004. The decline was mainly due to a stoppage and examination of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s nuclear-power plants after it was discovered in August 2002 that the examination records of 13 out of TEPCO’s 17 reactors had been tampered with from the latter half of the 1980s to the 1990s — an act that lowered the public’s trust in the nuclear-power industry.

Many of the nation’s reactors are now 20 to 30 years old but won’t be replaced by new ones until around 2030. Increasing the share of electricity produced by nuclear reactors to, for example, 40 percent, will place great strain on the older reactors. To both increase the operation rate of such reactors and ensure their safe operation will be a great challenge. Even if the amount of electricity produced by nuclear plants is not raised, ensuring their safe operation will still be a significant challenge.

The commission studied four scenarios to deal with spent nuclear fuel: reprocessing all the spent nuclear fuel; reprocessing part of it while burying the rest; burying all the spent nuclear fuel underground permanently; and keeping it in temporary storage facilities. It chose the first scenario on grounds that the other scenarios would weaken the nation’s energy security, and that changing present policy would be too costly.

The commission also suggested that a fast-breeder reactor be introduced on a commercial basis around 2050 on the condition that economic efficiency and other conditions are satisfied. This policy line should be viewed as only a continuation of past policy at a time when there is no prospect of a fast-breeder reactor being put to practical use. The suggestion may turn out to be totally meaningless.

The operation of the nation’s prototype fast-breeder reactor Monju in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, has been put on hold since an accident in December 1995 in which 0.7 tons of sodium used as a coolant leaked and caused a fire.

The draft does not clarify how much the fast-breeder-reactor project will cost. The cost to dispose of radioactive waste matter from nuclear-power plants is also unclear. The commission should adopt an approach that takes various options into consideration.

A project to burn a mixture of uranium and plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel in light-water reactors is not making much progress either. Although permission has been given to carry out “pluthermal burning” at five reactors, there is no prospect of doing so at four of them because irregularities in their operations have caused local governments to voice their disapproval.

Pluthermal burning was devised to consume surplus plutonium that resulted from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Because of the stoppage of the Monju fast-breeder reactor and the slow progress in pluthermal burning, Japan’s stockpile of plutonium has been increasing. At the end of last year it amounted to 43.1 tons — up 2.5 tons from the previous year — with 37.4 tons stored overseas and 5.7 tons in Japan. The commission’s original policy was that Japan would not possess surplus plutonium. Because nuclear nonproliferation is a grave global issue, other countries may view Japan with suspicion.

For the first time, the commission made mention in its draft of the need to research ways to bury spent nuclear fuel underground without reprocessing it. This could be taken as the commission’s tacit admission that the nuclear-fuel cycle plan will not work as expected.

An August earthquake in Miyagi Prefecture raised concern about the safety of the nation’s nuclear-power plants. At that time, tremors topping the maximum intensity envisaged in the design guidelines for the Onagawa nuclear-power plant were recorded. Unless the commission presents persuasive information on the cost and safety of nuclear-power generation, it will be difficult to win the public’s trust and support.

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