November 2000

Rokkasho plant supporters need to face reality

Asahi News Service, October 31, 2000
by Keiji Takeuchi

[Posted 02/11/2000]

With about 50 percent of the construction work already finished, the scheduled completion of the project in 2005 is in prospect. But not even the electric power companies that have put up the capital to help finance the project feel optimistic about the plant. Instead of welcoming the news, some industry sources have voiced fears that the plant will be a burden even if it operates smoothly. The 2.14 trillion-yen project was proposed at a time when the nation needed a large-scale domestic reprocessing plant to establish a nuclear fuel cycle-a cycle involving the extraction of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel through reprocessing and the consumption of the plutonium in a fast breeder reactor. Having such a reprocessing plant at home would have made it unnecessary to rely on Britain and France for reprocessing, eliminating the need to take extraordinary precautions to protect shipments of the reprocessed fuel back to Japan. But times have changed. The burning of plutonium in the fast breeder reactor has ceased to be an economical proposition. Also, plutonium, a material used in nuclear weapons, needs to be handled with extreme care. Many countries are struggling to find ways to consume plutonium derived from reprocessing.

Indeed, Japan is the only country building a facility to turn out plutonium on such a large scale. Clusters of giant plants are emerging on the 380-hectare premises of the Rokkasho plant. They have thick walls that can withstand the crash of aircraft. The same amount of money that is earmaked for the project could have funded the construction of five or six nuclear power plants. The government's long-term atomic energy utilization program, which was put together in August, called for a nationwide debate to work out future plans. The first thing that needs to be discussed is whether the Rokkasho reprocessing plant is really necessary. We should face reality. The plan to establish a fuel recycling system, essential to a reprocessing plant, has collapsed. Specifically, this means the project jeopardizes the nation's international commitment not to have surplus plutonium. There is no telling when the fast breeder reactor can be put to practical use. As a consequence, the "pulthermal plan" for burning plutonium in lightwater reactors in the form of mixed oxides (MOX) offers the only way to consume plutonium for the time being. Even then, the power companies can consume only about 30 tons of plutonium, which will be derived from reprocessing commissioned to Britain and France, until around 2010. They will also have five tons of plutonium from the Rokkasho reprocessing plant to deal with each year. (Ten tons of plutonium is enough to make a nuclear weapon.)

The trouble with the pulthermal plan is that the costs of such operations are higher than when uranium fuel is burned in lightwater reactors. If the Rokkasho reprocessing plant is operated at full capacity, the power firms will have to continue large-scale MOX-burning operations on a semipermanent basis because the liberalization of the power industry will bring greater competition and pressure to cut costs. Despite these problems, the power firms take the official position that the Rokkasho plant is necessary to foster reprocessing technology. They maintain this position partly because, as a matter of reality, it has become difficult to halt the project. At the same time, there are other reasons forcing them to stick to their positions. At some nuclear power plants, the sections where spent nuclear fuel is kept are nearing capacity. Failure to carry the fuel from there to pools for temporary custody at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant would jeopardize the continuation of operation at these nuclear power plants.

"What we urgently want is not the reprocessing plant but the pools being built as part of the project," say government and power-industry sources. Two things must be done to prevent the gap between reality and official policy from widening further. One is to bring together officials from the power industry, the Aomori prefectural government and other related circles for a round-table conference to discuss what should now be done. Prefectural authorities count on the Rokkasho project to provide jobs, but there may be other ways to promote employment. The other is a comparative study of options. Assuming that reprocessing will continue to be commissioned to Britain and France, the costs at the Rokkasho facility are estimated to run up to three times as much as when foreign helpis hired. And the French have concluded in a Tokyo-commissioned assessment report on the economy of atomic power that the pulthermal plan will place a greater economic burden on the power companies. The completion of the reprocessing plant will make it necessary to build an MOX production plant. It is about time to decide when to begin construction. A go-ahead on the MOX plant will commit Japan to a policy of relying on plutonium for power. If the Rokkasho project is to be reconsidered, now is the time to act.

Editor's note: The author is an Asahi Shimbun editorial writer.

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