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A rather murkey strategy

September 13, 2012


Internal contradictions on nuclear power hobble Japan's new energy strategy 


In the final version of the new national energy and environmental strategy set for release this week, the government will officially make it its mission to end nuclear power in Japan by the 2030s. At the same time, however, the plan will preserve Japan's nuclear fuel cycle program -- the long-running project to reprocess spent nuclear fuel into mixed plutonium-uranium MOX fuel for reuse.

The badly delayed nuclear fuel cycle program, centered on the Rokkasho fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture, underpins the continued operation of nuclear reactors in Japan. In other words, the government has included two obviously contradictory parts -- and all the confusion that entails -- in its strategic framework.

The inclusion of both a zero-nuclear target and the continuation of the fuel cycle in the energy strategy has its roots in government concern for pro-nuclear local governments hosting fuel cycle facilities, including the village of Rokkasho and Aomori Prefecture.

The reasons for these local governments' resistance to a zero-nuclear future are fairly obvious. If Japan goes nuclear-free, MOX fuel production will no longer be needed and, as Rokkasho and Aomori Prefecture have pointed out with some ire, may be stopped.

As such, both the village and prefecture have said, they may refuse to accept any new spent nuclear fuel and could go so far as to send the stock already in their jurisdictions back where it came from. With spent fuel pools filling up at plants across the country and nowhere else to put it, the move could "quickly make nuclear power generation impossible" in Japan, said Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano recently.

Spent nuclear fuel is extremely hot and extremely radioactive, and at present there is 2,919 metric tons of it sitting in cooling pools at the Rokkasho plant. What's more, the Rokkasho pools have a capacity of 3,000 tons, and the only other storage pools in Japan are the ones at each nuclear plant -- and these, too, are nearly out of space.

According to materials produced by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission in May this year, if reactors are restarted and the Rokkasho plant starts returning the spent fuel in its pools, many nuclear plants on the receiving end would soon go over their maximum storage capacity and have to shut down.

Specifically, Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Genkai plant would have to go off-line this fiscal year, followed by Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tokai No. 2 plant in fiscal 2013, and Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant and Chugoku Electric Power Co.'s Shimane plant in 2014. The plant with the longest operational life in such circumstances would be Tohoku Electric Power Co.'s Higashidori plant, which would have to shut down in fiscal 2027.

On Sept. 7, the Rokkasho village assembly adopted a text declaring that should Japan abandon the nuclear fuel cycle project, Rokkasho would not accept MOX fuel returned from Britain and France, where some of Japan's spent conventional nuclear fuel was shipped for reprocessing. Though a municipal resolution, the text demonstrated how the nuclear waste issue might spawn international disputes.

And so the government decided to avoid the vital question of what to do with the project, instead stuffing it into its long-term energy strategy together with a promise to ditch nuclear power as a whole. Will the cobbled-together nature of the new energy policy inspire trust, or will it rather draw widespread suspicion and doubt? As things stand, the latter is all-too possible. (By Hiroshi Hisata, Tokyo Business News Department)

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