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What to do with spent nuclear fuel

May 17, 2012

 

 

Editorial: Gov't must not fear policy change on spent nuclear fuel

http://mainichi.jp/english/english/perspectives/news/20120517p2a00m0na018000c.html

 

Well over 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored at nuclear power plants across Japan. If the nation's nuclear reactors are restarted, then the amount will only increase.


Up until recently Japan had promoted a nuclear fuel cycle in which all spent fuel was to be reprocessed, with the plutonium extracted from this fuel being used again in nuclear power plants. However, the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant has shaken this national policy. If the number of nuclear power plants is to be reduced and reliance on nuclear energy decreased, Japan must make major revisions to its nuclear fuel cycle strategy.


To prepare a base for discussion, a subcommittee of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission listed and assessed three options for dealing with spent fuel: the current approach of reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel; a "concurrent" approach of reprocessing some spent fuel and directly disposing of other spent fuel if some nuclear plants are kept in operation; or disposing of all spent nuclear fuel. The concurrent approach would keep the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture in operation while preparing to directly dispose of some fuel.


Considering that the government had hitherto been completely devoted to reprocessing spent fuel, there is significance in its listing of direct disposal as an option. The government also can be congratulated for taking a zero nuclear power plant scenario into consideration. However, an overview of government discussions on the issue creates the impression that the government is half-hearted about changes to its policy.


To begin with, the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant does not have the capacity to handle 100 percent of the spent fuel from Japan's nuclear reactors, and the policy of reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel is a pie in the sky. As such, choosing the "concurrent" options would effectively mean treading the same "reprocessing" path that Japan has been on.

In light of technical issues, safety and cost, we have urged the government to abandon reprocessing and draw the curtains on the nuclear fuel cycle. The subcommittee's findings also back up direct disposal of all spent nuclear fuel as the cheapest option.


In terms of nuclear nonproliferation, there is merit in direct disposal. The subcommittee predicted that plutonium extracted through reprocessing could be used up, but this seems unrealistic. And the practice of stockpiling plutonium, which can be used in nuclear weapons, without any plans to use it is questionable.


At the same time, if Japan were to decide to directly dispose of all spent fuel, then Aomori Prefecture, which had accepted spent fuel on the presumption that it would be reprocessed, could ask electric power companies to take the spent fuel home with them or otherwise refuse to accept it.


It is only natural for the local bodies concerned to raise objections. Surely then, the government should try to achieve a solution by taking responsibility and explaining the need for a policy change to local bodies and the public when it develops measures.


Up until now, the handling of spent nuclear fuel was deemed a private enterprise. The government should clarify its responsibility. The party benefiting from nuclear power needs to bear some of the responsibility for disposing of spent nuclear fuel.


The subcommittee's evaluation will be considered by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission and delivered to the government's Energy and Environment Council. We hope the government can decide on a policy without getting caught up in its past.

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