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The difficult road to nuclear phase-out

December 4, 2012


Road to zero-nuclear Japan a rocky one



On Sept. 14 this year, the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda decided on an energy and environmental strategy that would see the last nuclear reactor in Japan shut down in the 2030s. The very next day, however, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yukio Edano was in Aomori Prefecture, assuring Gov. Shingo Mimura that construction of J-Power's Oma nuclear power plant near Honshu's northern tip would be allowed to continue.

If the Oma plant, now about 40 percent finished, runs for its full 40-year projected lifespan, it won't be shut down for good until the 2050s -- a timeframe obviously inconsistent with the Sept. 24 decision.

Five days later, the government put that decision on ice, with the Cabinet opting instead to "implement a flexible energy policy while carrying out constant verification and review of the issue," as the single-page policy declaration read. The Noda administration's retreat from a true zero-nuclear policy was swift indeed.

The turning point actually came on Sept. 2, when the prime minister met with nearly his entire Cabinet at his official residence. Arrayed on the table in front of the ministers were documents detailing the obstacles to a non-nuclear Japan. Chief among them were the nuclear fuel cycle program, based in Aomori Prefecture and including the Oma plant, and cooperation with the United States on nuclear technology issues.

"So the public mood has pushed the issue this far," one person who attended the meeting later commented. "Well, now we have all the facts in front of us, and at least we know how difficult this really is." Someone from Noda's inner circle added, "Our projections were too optimistic. If someone called us too slow to understand what's involved here, they wouldn't be wrong."

The prospect of high electricity prices and the continued hollowing out of domestic industry certainly weighed on the ministers' minds that day, but it was fuel reprocessing and a stern admonition from the United States that changed the Noda administration's course on nuclear power.

At the beginning of September, before the energy and environment policy announcement, U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos visited Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura at the prime minister's office. The American diplomat was there to deliver a message from U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a telegram that called on the Japanese government to make a "prudent" decision on nuclear energy. The language of the message was restrained, but its aim was clear.

Secretary Chu visited Japan in March this year, and during a meal with Motohisa Furukawa, then Minister of State for National Policy and chair of the government's energy and environment committee, he told Furukawa that the U.S. was concerned about what effect Japan's next steps would have on the energy policy of its neighbors.

If Japan did move to denuclearize, the price of oil and gas would likely spike and prompt Russia, China and other regional powers to beef up their nuclear power programs. Nuclear power development in North America and Europe, meanwhile, had been on a downward trend since before the Fukushima nuclear disaster. What worries Chu is the prospect of Russia and China becoming the world leaders in nuclear technology and hobbling the efforts of the U.S., Japan and Europe to create an international system to manage that technology.

According to a senior Foreign Ministry official, the creation of an international system to manage nuclear technology and materials "is a core U.S. policy, which would crumble if Japan withdrew its cooperation. The impact on the Japan-U.S. relationship would far outstrip the recent trouble over the U.S. military's deployment of MV-22 Osprey aircraft."

In 1970, Japan's first commercial light-water reactor went online, supplying power to the Kansai region. The No. 1 reactor at the Tsuruga nuclear plant was designed and built by U.S. engineering giant General Electric. In the intervening 42 years, GE's nuclear reactor business has been absorbed by Hitachi, while another major U.S. reactor maker, Westinghouse, has been brought under the Toshiba umbrella. In other words, the U.S. nuclear technology business is dependent on Japan, making Chu nervous about Japan dropping nuclear power even as it continues in the U.S.

It's not just Japan's greatest foreign ally that's crying foul, however. Aomori Prefecture, with its host of nuclear facilities including the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant -- the lynchpin of Japan's nuclear fuel cycle project -- was incensed at the proposal to abandon nuclear power, believing that the prefecture would end up a radioactive waste dump for the entire country as the nuclear industry wound down.

The nuclear fuel cycle program was initiated to create a more efficient nuclear industry by reprocessing spent fuel rods from Japan's nuclear plants into mixed-oxide fuel -- a combination of plutonium and various oxides of uranium -- for use in both conventional and specially designed reactors. Though not quite recycling, it did promise to reuse much of Japan's spent fuel.

The project has yet to get off the ground, as malfunctions and other problems have so far caused 19 delays at the Rokkasho plant, which cost more than 2 trillion yen to build but has yet to go into full operation. This "dream energy source," with its promise of yet more fuel drawn from expended fuel burning in super-efficient fast-breeder reactors, has so far been just that: a dream.

While the fuel "cycle" is already failing to live up to its very name, an end to nuclear power would instantly transform all the spent uranium already within Aomori's borders waiting to be reprocessed into miracle fuel into plain old nuclear waste. Much of that spent fuel is even now sitting in pools at the Rokkasho plant, and the Aomori Prefectural government has promised to send it back to the power stations from where it came should Japan go zero-nuclear.

Should the prefecture go through with its threat, the spent fuel pools at the power stations would fill to overflowing, and nuclear power generation would have to stop.

Additionally, Japan's reprocessing efforts -- both at home and that contracted out to plants in France and Britain -- have yielded 45 metric tons of plutonium, enough to build 4,000 Nagasaki-sized atomic bombs. Japan's anti-nuclear weapons stance cleared the way for the United States to recognize Japan's fuel reprocessing operation in the Japan-U.S. Nuclear Cooperation Agreement -- the only such instance in all the U.S's nuclear technology treaties.

However the agreement will come up for revision in 2018, and negotiations for its successor must begin within the next two years. There is no chance that the U.S., a hardline anti-proliferation nation, would allow a country to hold massive quantities of plutonium for no specific purpose.

If reprocessing stops, Japan will have to bury its spent fuel underground. Finding a disposal site, however, will be a Herculean task. National discussion on the issue would be a must, but in a government-backed public opinion study on energy and environmental strategy in June this year, the topic was excluded from consideration.

The result of all this is that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-led administration pledged to end nuclear power in Japan by the 2030s, but also to keep the reprocessing program going. According to one source involved in the formation of the government position, this apparently contradictory policy came about because "we'd decided we would have a strategy ready by September, and there was no time for debate."

What answers do the 12 parties contesting the Dec. 16 election have for these problems?

The DPJ election manifesto states, "We will re-evaluate the status of nuclear power from the point of view of necessity. On direct nuclear waste disposal (underground in Japan), we will take responsibility for the issue and express our direction." The largest opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) manifesto says that "discussions will be held on basic energy policy, and we will examine the future of the issue with all seriousness."

The newly-minted Tomorrow Party of Japan (TPJ), meanwhile, is calling for an immediate halt to reprocessing, and favors a "dry storage" option -- encasing the spent fuel in metal and storing it in a cool place -- for used fuel rods. The Japan Restoration Party (JRP) -- also facing its first national election -- has a "spent nuclear fuel" entry in its manifesto, but no concrete policy proposals.

On the overall issue of nuclear power, all the parties except for the LDP, JRP, People's New Party and New Renaissance Party have pledged to eliminate nuclear power at some point. If one or some of these anti-nuclear parties form the next government, they will be faced with the same extreme pressures that presented such a barrier to the Noda administration's initial zero nuclear pledge.

Making sure that the end to nuclear power does not become just another election slogan to be disposed of after the votes are counted will test voters' powers of observation.

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