With the recent reactivation of the No. 1 reactor at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, the government has moved a step ahead with a policy for maintaining nuclear power. To keep in tandem with that move, a working group of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in July began looking into measures to maintain the nuclear fuel cycle. While the move is aimed at improving the environment for nuclear power businesses amid liberalization of the electricity market, it is posing serious problems.
Under the nuclear fuel cycle, spent fuel from nuclear plants is reprocessed to extract plutonium for reuse as fuel. While the project is promoted as part of Japan’s national policy, the actual reprocessing of spent fuel is undertaken by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., a company jointly invested in by power companies. If free competition progresses in the electricity market, utilities would not be able to secure as much profit as before and some might no longer be able to support Japan Nuclear Fuel.
The ministry’s working group is considering intensifying government involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle to keep the project afloat. The group is also mulling more secure ways to raise a total of 12.6 trillion yen in operating costs for the project.
Currently, the cost for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is tacked on to electricity bills. If the government is to step up its involvement in the project, it will need to seek public consensus over its relevance, including the additional public financial burden.
The nuclear fuel cycle has been riddled with major problems in terms of technology, safety and costs. The completion of Japan Nuclear Fuel’s reprocessing plant under construction in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, has been postponed 22 times following regular trouble. The construction cost has already tripled from the initial estimate of 760 billion yen, and could further snowball for safety and other necessary measures. The development of a fast-breeder reactor, which is supposed to act as “wheels on a car” for the nuclear fuel cycle along with the reprocessing project, has been stalled at the stage of operating the Monju prototype reactor, with no prospects for putting it into practical use. The so-called “pluthermal” project using plutonium in conventional light-water reactors is not making as much progress as expected.
There also lies a serious problem in plutonium extracted in the reprocessing of spent fuel from the viewpoint of nuclear non-proliferation. Japan currently possesses more than 47 metric tons of plutonium at home and abroad, and if the country is to produce additional plutonium that could be diverted to military use with no destination for consumption amid lowering dependence on nuclear power, the international community would only grow suspicious about such possession.
In the wake of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster, the Japan Atomic Energy Commission released an assessment showing that the direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel over the next 20 to 30 years would be equal to or more beneficial than reprocessing such fuel in terms of economic efficiency, nuclear non-proliferation and other effects. Given such estimates, the government should focus its efforts not on measures to prolong the nuclear fuel cycle but on putting forth steps to draw a curtain on the project.
If the reprocessing of spent fuel is to be terminated, Aomori Prefecture would demand that such fuel it has thus far accommodated should be brought back to where it was originally generated. Such a project termination would also cause problems to local employment and the disposal of existing plutonium. The government should rather rack its brain over how to resolve these issues.