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.