talks needed on the nuclear fuel cycle
The Asahi Shimbun, POINT OF VIEW, 7 June
By Eisaku Sato, governor of Fukushima Prefecture
Original address: http://www.asahi.com/english/op-ed/K2003060700270.html
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
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
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.