June 2003

New talks needed on the nuclear fuel cycle

The Asahi Shimbun, POINT OF VIEW, 7 June 2003
By Eisaku Sato, governor of Fukushima Prefecture

Original address: http://www.asahi.com/english/op-ed/K2003060700270.html

[Posted 12/06/2003]

Recently, I often find myself seeing or reading reports about the government's and the electric power industry's “indomitable resolve to realize the nuclear fuel cycle” and plans to “provide new subsidies to support the nuclear fuel cycle policy.” Every time I do, I cannot help but think it's the same old story.

The nuclear fuel cycle in which spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed to extract plutonium is not only very costly but could lead to mass storage of plutonium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, plans to put fast breeder reactors to practical use to burn plutonium have stalled. Despite such circumstances, why are the government and the power industry so intent on advancing the nuclear fuel cycle now?

Looking back, along with the governors of Niigata and Fukui prefectures, I proposed in 1996 that an effort should be made to form nuclear energy policy with the consensus of the people based on broad discussions. In 1997, we also proposed to then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto that the government should advance nuclear policy with a new attitude. I have thus continued to call for the formation of a national consensus with thorough discussion and disclosure of information.

However, the government has continued to one-sidedly push its nuclear energy policy, often employing stopgap measures. In 1999, falsification of data on plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel came to light. In the same year, a plant operated by JCO Co., a nuclear fuel processor in Ibaraki Prefecture, became the site of Japan's worst nuclear accident by triggering a nuclear chain reaction. Shortly after the criticality accident, I visited a public health office in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, which shares a border with Ibaraki. To this day, I cannot forget the pale faces of local residents as they waited anxiously to undergo a medical examination.

In January 2001, at a time when public trust and understanding toward nuclear energy was dwindling, the media reported moves by an electric power company to advance the plutonium-thermal project to burn MOX fuel in nuclear reactors. Furthermore, in February of the same year, the utility unilaterally announced plans to freeze the development of new power sources, including construction of a thermal power plant.

Citing a national standpoint, the government and the power industry appear reluctant to change any decisions they made regardless of the will of the people and local communities that accommodate nuclear power plants. At the same time, they seem to think nothing of changing plans to suit themselves.

Since the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Fukushima Prefecture has been supplying the Tokyo area with power, including hydraulic power, as the nation's largest provider of electricity. It has also been supportive of nuclear power generation. However, as it is, the situation could threaten the prefecture's very existence as a center of power plants. Moved by such a sense of crisis, Fukushima established an in-house committee to study energy policy in May 2001.

The committee has heard various views from experts in the field, many of whom raised concerns about the nuclear fuel cycle. Last year, it put together the views in a booklet in the form of an interim report and presented it to the government. Specifically, it addressed the following questions:

(1) If uranium supply remains stable for several decades, is it really indispensable to establish the nuclear fuel cycle at this time?

(2) Will the policy lead to conservation of resources? (One study estimates that without fast breeder reactors, the saving would be limited to only about 10 percent.)

(3) Is it financially feasible? (Some people point out that it would present a heavy burden to electricity providers with the advancement of liberalization of the electric power market.)

(4) Can the balance of plutonium storage be maintained? (Reprocessing produces more plutonium.)

(5) What are the chances of putting fast breeder reactors to practical use? (Many countries have given them up. Japan's long-term atomic energy plan also no longer carries an entry about plans to start construction of demonstration fast breeder reactors.)

(6) Is it possible to drastically cut down the volume of high-level radioactive wastes?

Despite these various questions and difference of views, the government does nothing but repeat what it has been saying all along.

Instead of stubbornly sticking to previously decided plans, the government should take the time to study whether the nuclear fuel cycle is really needed, compare other alternatives such as directly disposing of spent fuel and ask the people the way energy policy ought to be in the future.

In recent years, major public works projects are being reassessed. The establishment of the nuclear fuel cycle is a costly undertaking that is estimated to cost more than 10 trillion yen. In order to aim at sound and sustainable development of nuclear power generation, I believe we need to seriously develop discussions based on sincere voices, not just mere official stances.

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