EDITORIAL: Time running out to scrap nuclear fuel recycling program

A spent fuel rod is extracted for storage from the No. 1 reactor at the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, on June 4.

September 19, 2014

Japan currently stores spent nuclear fuel primarily at 18 nuclear power plants around the country. Most of the 17,000 tons of radioactive material is kept in spent nuclear fuel pools.
Storage of spent nuclear fuel in pools is highly vulnerable to incidents such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks. If such an incident were to occur, the spent fuel rods in pools could cause immense damage by releasing huge amounts of radiation. This problem was brought to the fore by the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011.
But the debate on storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel is getting nowhere fast.
A nuclear power subcommittee of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy held a meeting Sept. 16 to discuss a range of topics, including spent nuclear fuel. But nothing notable came out of the discussions. Why?
The principal factor is the government’s refusal to change its policy of continuing the nuclear fuel recycling program.
The program is designed to reuse all spent nuclear fuel in fast-breeder reactors or in existing reactors. If the system for recycling nuclear fuel is actually realized, the problem of having to store spent fuel in the pools would be solved.
But it is already clear that neither the Monju project to develop practical fast-breeder reactors nor the “pluthermal” project to use nuclear fuel made from reprocessed plutonium and uranium in existing reactors is viable, technologically or economically.
Following the 2011 nuclear disaster, the Cabinet Office’s Japan Atomic Energy Commission said that direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel would be cheaper than reprocessing, after estimating the costs of both approaches.
The Science Council of Japan and other expert organizations pointed out that storing spent nuclear fuel in dry casks–typically leak-tight steel cylinders containing an inert gas–placed on the ground for a limited period of time is an effective way to avoid the risks of storage in pools.
Pursuing alternative storage methods requires the government to start reconsidering its nuclear fuel recycling program.
The government will also have to rethink its relations with Aomori Prefecture, which has accepted fuel reprocessing facilities. But there will be no realistic solution to the dangers of storing spent nuclear fuel in the pools unless the government takes the step.
Currently, used fuel is treated as “assets” for accounting purposes. But if it is regarded as waste, it has to be reported as “debt” on the balance sheets of the operators of the nuclear power plants.
As a first step toward a policy shift, the government should publish objective data about the nuclear fuel recycling program, including information about accounting practices and other issues.
If idled nuclear reactors are restarted while the program remains unchanged, spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants will start reaching their capacity in three years, according to an estimate by the industry ministry.
In addition, the power retail market will be fully liberalized in 2016, with the scrapping of the government-regulation system for electricity rates.
The pluthermal project, which is financially supported by the electric utilities that operate nuclear power plants, is bound to become a burden on that market liberalization.
The government is running out of time to make the major policy decision to pull the plug on the nuclear fuel recycling program.

–The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 19


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