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Despite the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s recent technical go-ahead for a reprocessing plant under construction in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, the nuclear fuel cycle policy that the government has pursued for decades remains effectively stalemated. The ¥14 trillion project, if completed and run at full capacity, would produce more plutonium than can be consumed at the nation’s nuclear power plants under current conditions.

The Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.’s plant to reprocess spent fuels from power reactors from across the country and extract plutonium for plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel is a key component of the nuclear fuel cycle that the government has sought to achieve since the 1950s. The problem is that the fast-breeder reactor project that would use the MOX fuel — once deemed a dream technology for this resource-poor country that produces more plutonium than it consumes — has gone nowhere. The alternative use of MOX fuel at existing light-water reactors continues to be sluggish due to the slow restart of nuclear power plants idled in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The Rokkasho plant’s passing of the NRA’s safety screening does not represent a vindication of the stalled nuclear fuel cycle policy. Rather, it should serve as yet another reminder of the de facto breakdown of the policy and prompt the government and the power industry to rethink whether the costly policy remains relevant at a time when the nation is trying to reduce its dependence on nuclear energy following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The reprocessing plant project itself has lagged significantly behind schedule. Since construction began in 1993, the completion of the plant has now been delayed by more than two decades due to a series of technical glitches and the impact of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The construction cost alone has ballooned from the initial estimate of ¥760 billion to some ¥3 trillion. The entire expense of the massive project will be added to consumers’ electricity charges. The NRA’s screening only certifies that the plant meets the new safety regulations introduced after the Fukushima nuclear accident. While the operator aims to complete the plant as early as next year, when it will be put into operations remains unclear.

An even bigger problem is whether there is demand for the Rokkasho plant’s operation. Monju, the prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture that was to consume the plutonium fuel reprocessed at Rokkasho, was taken out of service in 2016 after being offline for much of its life due to a series of accidents, technical glitches and operater problems, achieving little for the ¥1 trillion in taxpayer money spent on the project. The government sought to continue research on next-generation fast reactors in a joint project with France, but that bid has been in limbo since Paris scaled back the project in light of an abundance of uranium resources.

Given the breakdown of the Monju project, the government and the power industry have sought to consume the nation’s stockpile of plutonium — amounting to nearly 46 tons — by using MOX fuel at conventional nuclear reactors. However, the industry’s plan to consume up to 6.5 tons of plutonium annually at 16 to 18 reactors has not materialized because the restart of the nuclear plants idled in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster has stagnated. Only four of the nine reactors put back online since 2011 use MOX fuel, and the prospect is dim that plutonium consumption will significantly pick up in the near future.

Once completed, the Rokkasho plant will have the capacity to extract up to 8 tons of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel each year. To allay international proliferation concerns, the government says the plant will reprocess only the needed amount. But that means the massively expensive plant would have to be run at a tiny portion of its capacity, raising further doubts over the economic feasibility of the project.

It’s said that the government is unable to abandon the fuel cycle policy because that could force the nuclear power generation to a standstill. The power companies have an agreement with Aomori Prefecture and Rokkasho village that if the reprocessing project is canceled roughly 3,000 tons of spent fuel sent from nuclear power plants nationwide to the Rokkasho plant would be shipped back to the power plants. But this would overwhelm their storage capacity and force the power firms to halt the operation of the nuclear plants. The storage capacity at spent fuel pools at power plants nationwide is close to capacity, and the plant operators need to secure destinations for shipping their spent fuel.

How to dispose of the spent nuclear fuel would be a big challenge that must be tackled if the nuclear fuel cycle policy is to be terminated. But that should not stop the government and the power industry from rethinking whether the costly fuel cycle program — initially aimed at efficient use of the uranium resources — remains viable at a time when nuclear power is being scaled back.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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