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
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
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
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
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.