June 2003

Review nuclear program and freeze operations at reprocessing plant

The Asahi Shimbun, EDITORIAL, 23 June 2003

Original address: http://www.asahi.com/english/op-ed/K2003062300348.html

[Posted 25/06/2003]

A 2.1 trillion yen spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant is nearing completion in Rokkasho village in Aomori Prefecture. A trial run using spent uranium that was slated for June has been postponed, but full-scale testing with used fuel will begin next year.

We feel the nuclear-fuel cycle program-the stimulus for constructing the plant-is falling apart. The suitability of the nuclear fuel cycle program needs to be reviewed, rather than blindly proceeding with operations once construction of the Rokkasho facility is complete.

We suggest freezing operations at the facility and establishing a committee that reports directly to the prime minister to re-examine the overall nuclear-power landscape.

The motive behind reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is to extract plutonium that can be used repeatedly in next-generation fast-breeder reactors. Since Japan lacks oil resources, developing the ability to reprocess spent nuclear fuel is a key tenet of the nation's nuclear-power policy. Reprocessing plants are key to attaining self-sufficiency goals.

But the prototype Monju fast-breeder reactor halted operations after a sodium leak and there are no firm plans to develop more advanced demonstration reactors due to questions over cost efficiency.

The government now plans a plutonium-thermal project that will make mixed oxide fuel (MOX) from reprocessed plutonium. This fuel could then be used in regular nuclear plants. But the project is expensive and local residents strongly oppose such fuel, so no timetable has been fixed for starting operations.

Given these circumstances, what will happen if the Rokkasho reprocessing plant begins operations? Japan has promised the global community it will not stockpile excessive amounts of plutonium. As a result, if the Rokkasho plant begins operations, a MOX plant costing up to 120 billion yen will have to be built, despite uncertainty surrounding the technology's future.

It would also be necessary to build new reprocessing facilities to handle used fuel generated by plutonium-thermal reactors.

Something must be done about the nuclear fuel cycle program, but opinions on what action must be taken are divided, even within the Atomic Energy Society of Japan and the government's Atomic Energy Commission study group.

The government must take responsibility and start reviewing the process. It should begin by quickly establishing a powerful committee backed by a special law and review the nuclear fuel cycle program based on energy requirements extending decades into the future.

The government should consider the policy from all angles, including cost efficiency, safety, nuclear nonproliferation. It must consider the costs and study how much the program actually would save resources.

Rather than taking only one path-reprocessing all spent fuel-the government should consider several options and it is vital that long-term research be conducted to allow flexibility of policy choices in the future.

Local governments, which look forward to regional economic development prompted by the construction of recycling facilities, must not be forgotten.

Whatever the results of a review, the government must construct interim storage facilities as soon as possible to house growing amounts of used fuel for several decades. Compared with the plutonium-thermal project, such facilities are relatively safe and cheap.

Once full-scale test operations begin, the reprocessing plant will be contaminated with radiation, which means it will be expensive to maintain and costly to shut down. Little time remains for discussion.

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