Rokkasho plant supporters need to face reality
Asahi News Service, October 31, 2000
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.
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.)
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.
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.