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Pluthermal spells problems for Japan

 June 28, 2013   

ANALYSIS: Negatives abound for Japan's 'pluthermal' power generation plans





It doesn’t appear Japan’s troubled plutonium-thermal (pluthermal) power generation program is going to see the light at the end of the tunnel anytime soon.

The utilities are being forced to continue using the pluthermal process because it constitutes a key component of Japan's nuclear fuel recycling program.

Past problems have delayed the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, and some utilities face the possibility of having to halt their nuclear plant operations, even if they are allowed to restart idled reactors, because they simply have no place to store the spent fuel.

In addition, the utilities have poured trillions of yen into the nuclear fuel recycling program with little to show for it.

The problem of where to store spent nuclear fuel has major ramifications for not only the electric power companies.

A total of 14,200 tons of spent fuel were being kept at storage pools at nuclear plants around Japan as of the end of September 2011. That figure represents about 70 percent of the total capacity of the storage pools.

As a stopgap measure, the government decided on a less-than-desirable process called pluthermal, which uses mixed-oxide fuel or MOX (plutonium extracted from spent fuel), to generate electricity in conventional light water reactors.

A key to Japan’s future storage plans has always been the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. But the government never envisioned the problems that have plagued the facility.

Under initial plans, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. was to have completed construction of the reprocessing plant in 1997. However, a total of 19 test runs have failed, and the facility has not been completed.

Nearly 3,000 tons of spent fuel is already being stored at Rokkasho, which is close to capacity. Once that reprocessing plant begins operations though, it's expected to be able to handle 800 tons of spent fuel annually, freeing up more storage space.

Until then, electric power companies are scrambling to find alternatives for their spent nuclear fuel, including the construction of intermediate storage facilities. On June 26, Kansai Electric Power Co. established a project team to study the feasibility of constructing such a facility.

MOX fuel is problematic in other ways. Kansai Electric accepted a shipment of the fuel on June 27 for use in a pluthermal reactor at its Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture.

But even if the pluthermal reactor is allowed to resume operations, Kansai Electric faces another potential headache, which is what to do with the spent MOX fuel. MOX fuel generates large amounts of heat, creating handling problems.

The plutonium that results from the processing of MOX fuel also presents another dilemma: the production of nuclear weapons.

An ever-increasing stockpile of the nuclear fuel could raise eyebrows in a world already concerned over nuclear proliferation and the production of weapons of mass destruction


Japan currently has 44.3 tons of plutonium in storage at home and abroad.

Another problem is that the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011 following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami turned public opinion sharply against nuclear power, meaning a continuation of the pluthermal generation process will likely face many difficulties.

Long before that disaster, the government plan was to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel using a fast-breeder reactor. All that went up in smoke, though, after sodium leaked from the Monju prototype reactor in 1995.

Financing is also a concern. The pluthermal program has been nothing but an economic nightmare for the utilities.

Not only have the utilities poured trillions of yen into the nuclear fuel recycling program, the cost of MOX fuel is between seven to eight times more expensive than the uranium fuel normally used in nuclear reactors.

A major reason is spent fuel has to be shipped to France for reprocessing before it is shipped back to Japan as MOX fuel.

According to trade statistics compiled by the Finance Ministry, each fuel assembly transported to the nuclear plant in Takahama in 2010 costs 880 million yen ($9 million).

The justification until now for paying the higher prices has been to maintain the nation's nuclear fuel recycling program.

The nine electric power companies that operate nuclear plants and Japan Atomic Power Co. have set aside funds for use in reprocessing spent fuel once the plant begins operations, in addition to paying for tests at the facility.

By March 2012, a total of 3.6 trillion yen had been paid to the Radioactive Waste Management Funding and Research Center for the reserve that will be used once operations begin at the Rokkasho facility.

The power companies have also made advance payments to Japan Nuclear Fuel for future reprocessing as a means of propping up that company.

So far, a total of 1.1 trillion yen has been paid. The total cost to the 10 companies comes to 6.6 trillion yen.

What remains clear, is that even if the Rokkasho facility begins operations, it will not be cost-effective.

The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan in 2003 estimated a total of 19 trillion yen would be needed over a 40-year period for the reprocessing program there.

However, that covers the reprocessing of MOX fuel of an amount equivalent to uranium fuel worth 900 billion yen. The major reason for the price discrepancy is only 1 percent of plutonium can be extracted from spent nuclear fuel to create MOX fuel.

But as is usually the case, in the end, it will be consumers who will bear the huge costs that have resulted from the massive problems plaguing Japan’s nuclear industry in the form of higher electric bills.

(This article was compiled from reports by Toshio Kawada, Rintaro Sakurai, Shin Matsuura and Mari Fujisaki.)

see also :


June 27, 2013


Japan unlikely to use MOX fuel in nuclear reactors


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