The uncertain fate of the spent mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel removed from two nuclear power reactors in western Japan last month — for the first time since the commercial use of plutonium-uranium fuel in light water reactors began about a decade ago — is yet another sign of the stalemate over the government's nuclear fuel cycle policy. While the government maintains that all spent nuclear fuel will be reprocessed for reuse as fuel for nuclear reactors, there are no facilities in this country that can reprocess spent MOX fuel so it will remain indefinitely in storage pools at the nuclear plants.

A reprocessing plant owned by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. that is under construction in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, can only handle spent uranium fuel. No concrete plans have been made for building a second plant capable of reprocessing spent MOX fuel. Completion of the Rokkasho plant itself has been delayed for years amid an endless series of technical glitches resulting in huge cost overruns since construction began in the early 1990s. When the plant is completed and begins operating it will likely only add to Japan's plutonium stockpile. This is because the use of plutonium in MOX fuel remains sluggish due to the slow restart of reactors idled following the 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.

Instead of shelving hard decisions on the nuclear fuel cycle policy any further, the government and the power industry need to candidly assess the prospects of the policy and proceed with a long-overdue review.