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Reprocessing: "There is no option to call it off"

January 7, 2016


Nuclear Watch: 'Nursing care plan' for nuclear plants (Pt. 60)


Reprocessing: "There is no option to call it off"

Many of those involved in nuclear power say the electric power industry appears to have no intention to "die with the nuclear fuel cycle project."

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) recommended on Nov. 13, 2015, that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) be replaced by another entity as the operator of the trouble-plagued prototype fast-breeder reactor Monju.

Three days later, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL), which was founded on the initiative of the electric power industry, announced that the completion of its nuclear fuel reprocessing facility under construction in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, will be delayed by about two years to the first half of 2018.

These two core facilities in the nuclear fuel cycle project, in which nuclear fuel spent at atomic power stations is reprocessed and reused in nuclear reactors, are in difficult situations.

In spring this year, electric power retail will be fully liberalized. Since consumers will be allowed to freely select electric power suppliers, competition between utilities is expected to intensify, which could cause the profits of electric power companies to decline. As such, the nuclear fuel cycle project is becoming increasingly burdensome for power companies as there are no prospects that the project will be put into practical use in the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, Toichi Sakata, former vice minister at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, has ruled out the possibility that the government will abandon the project.

"There is no option to call it off," says Sakata, 67, who was involved in the operation of the Akatsuki Maru vessel that transported plutonium from France to Japan.

This is not only because over 2 trillion yen has been spent on the project but also because the Aomori Prefectural Government would certainly demand that some 3,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at the reprocessing facility be removed from the prefecture if the project were to be discontinued.

About 70 percent of pools for spent fuel at nuclear plants across the countries are filled, and they do not have enough capacity to store spent nuclear fuel if returned. The abandonment of the nuclear fuel cycle project could force electric power companies to suspend their nuclear power generation, which is a highly profitable business, causing great confusion.

The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry took action in response to the situation. At a meeting of experts on Nov. 30, the ministry decided to set up an entity to supervise JNFL. By establishing a system to force electric power companies to engage in processing spent nuclear fuel, the national government showed its determination to continue the nuclear fuel cycle project. This may be a sign that Japan's atomic energy policy, in which private companies operate nuclear plants under national policy, will shift into one in which the government supervises atomic power business based on its own policy.

"It's so-to-speak a plan on 'nursing care' for atomic power stations," says Hitoshi Yoshioka, professor at Kyushu University.

Yoshioka points to the possibility that the accounting system and the system of paying compensation in case of a nuclear accident will be reformed and that a system similar to one under which utilities must buy electric power generated with renewable energy at fixed prices will apply to nuclear power.

The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry has urged power companies to build more facilities to store spent nuclear fuel. In response, electric power companies announced on Nov. 20 last year that they will build such facilities with a total capacity of 6,000 tons, a 30 percent increase from the current capacity, by sometime around 2030. (By Haruyuki Aikawa, Senior Writer)



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