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Not much to do with cost, in fact

April 20, 2012


Despite cost, adherence to gov't nuclear fuel reprocessing policy still seen



Estimates released April 19 by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) have shown that the government's policy of reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel generated at nuclear power plants across Japan would cost more than burying a portion of the fuel underground. Yet a number of government and nuclear power plant officials remain firmly attached to the policy of reprocessing fuel, and the barriers to changing the nation's policy on fuel reprocessing are high.

A feature of the latest estimates from a JAEC subcommittee is that the "concurrent" method of partially reprocessing and partially burying spent nuclear fuel was deemed to be the cheapest as long as nuclear power plants remained in operation, while directly disposing of all spent fuel would be the cheapest method if all nuclear power plants were to cease operation in Japan by 2020. The conclusions indicate that a path for directly disposing of spent nuclear fuel could be opened.

Under the estimates, 5 trillion yen to cover the decommissioning of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture and other expenses have been added to the costs of disposing of all spent nuclear fuel. Because of this, complete disposal has been deemed economically disadvantageous as long as nuclear power plants are still operating in Japan.

Hideyuki Ban, a committee member who serves as a joint representative of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, commented, "Unless we look carefully at how the calculations were made, we can't judge whether they are appropriate or not. The conclusions indicate that the there is still an attachment (within the government) to the stalled nuclear fuel cycle."

Cost is not the only factor in the attachment to the reprocessing cycle. Supposing the ratio of nuclear power to the total amount of electric power generated in Japan stood at 20 percent by 2030, reprocessing instead of disposing of spent nuclear fuel would result in a 15 percent saving in uranium fuel, and stockpiles of fissile uranium which are restricted under international rules (amounting to about 30 tons) would decrease from 2030 onwards. This gives the reprocessing model the upper hand.

One reason the government and power suppliers have stuck firmly to reprocessing is that stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel continue to build up at nuclear power plants. As of September last year, there were a total of 14,200 tons of spent fuel onsite at Japan's 54 reactors, including four Tokyo Electric Power Co. reactors which were officially decommissioned on April 19. Unless this "nuclear waste" is dealt with, nuclear power plants may have to cease operations. But even if a decision is made to directly dispose of spent fuel, the issue of finding a disposal site must still be addressed.

The estimates produced by the JAEC subcommittee will be reflected in a mid- to long-term energy strategy to be compiled by the government's Energy and Environment Council, while taking feasibility issues into consideration. But it remains to be seen whether the government's line of reprocessing spent fuel will be changed. When the outline for Japan's current nuclear power strategy was compiled in 2005, direct disposal of spent fuel was calculated to be about 10 percent cheaper than reprocessing it, but after a general evaluation, the line of reprocessing all nuclear fuel was adopted.

Subcommittee member Hidenori Oda, a member of the JAEC subcommittee who serves as head of the nuclear power division of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, called for maintaining the status quo.

"The selection of a reprocessing site was sought earnestly together with a local body involved (the Aomori Prefectural Government). A policy change would negate this," he said.

Tatsujiro Suzuki, who presides over the subcommittee, told reporters after the subcommittee's meeting, "Rather than cost, the issues of spent nuclear fuel stockpiles and the influences a policy change would have on local bodies are more important."

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