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In Perspective: Changing Japan's Spent Fuel Policy

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

As the arguments for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel in Japan grow thinner, Tatsujiro Suzuki, Masafumi Takubo and Frank von Hippel argue that Japan needs a new spent fuel policy. Suzuki is a professor at Nagasaki University and former vice chair of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission; Takubo, an independent nuclear researcher in Tokyo, manages the website Kakujoho.net (“Nuclear Information”); and Von Hippel is a researcher and emeritus professor at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Security. On Aug. 21, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. announced another postponement -- until 2022 -- of the completion of its commercial reprocessing plant at Rokkasho village in Aomori prefecture. The plant is designed to separate up to eight tons of plutonium per year. When its construction started in 1993, it was expected to be completed in 1997. As of the end of 2019, Japan had 45.5 tons of separated plutonium -- mostly separated and still stored in Europe: 21.2 tons in the UK and 15.4 tons in France. Had not Rokkasho's completion schedule been delayed for a quarter of a century, the world would have more than 100 additional tons of weapon-usable plutonium to deal with. In the meantime, Japan’s rationale for reprocessing has been changing. Originally, it was to provide plutonium for the initial cores of sodium-cooled breeder reactors that would produce more plutonium than they consumed in order to solve the anticipated problem of uranium scarcity. That problem faded like a mirage, however, and, by the time construction of the reprocessing plant started, the prospects of commercial breeder reactors also were fading. Already in 1991, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) forecast that, through 2010, some 75 tons of separated plutonium Japan expected to separate in Japan and Europe would be used in plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel in conventional light-water reactors (LWRs). In 1997, under pressure from Japan’s cabinet, Japan’s nuclear utilities announced a plan to use Mox in 16-18 LWRs by 2010, even though it was widely understood that this was not economically justified. By 2011, the JAEC estimated that Mox fuel would be 10 times more costly than the low-enriched uranium fuel that Japan’s LWRs would otherwise use. Licensing reactors for Mox fuel use proved to be technically and politically complex. Today, only four power reactors operating in Japan are licensed to use Mox fuel. Two more are in the post-Fukushima relicensing process and a third is under construction. Even if all come online, they will be able to consume roughly only half of the planned output of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. In 2005, the JAEC added a non-economic justification for the plant. It argued that, if the reprocessing policy were canceled, communities hosting nuclear power plants would be unwilling “to accept the temporary storage of spent fuel at the site" and plants “will be forced to suspend operations.” This prophecy was almost self-fulfilling in that Japan’s utilities did not install on-site dry cask storage for spent fuel as nuclear utilities in most other countries have done; and, as Rokkasho's start-up was delayed year after year, existing storage capacity started to fill up. Today, the intake pools at the Rokkasho plant are virtually full, and the spent fuel storage pools at Japan's nuclear power plants are on average about 70% full. Some pools have been re-racked to up their capacity, increasing the danger of a spent-fuel fire in case of a loss of water such as almost occurred at Fukushima Daiichi Pool No. 4 during the 2011 nuclear meltdowns. Only now, with the encouragement of Japan’s post-Fukushima safety regulator, are Japan’s nuclear power plants beginning to install on-site dry cask storage. Currently, the leading argument in favor of reprocessing is that the long-lived plutonium in spent fuel must be fissioned in order to reduce the hazard from deeply buried radioactive waste. Since 1996, expert studies in the US, Switzerland, Sweden, Japan and France have concluded that the hazard-reduction benefits would not be significant. Japan’s government has been so determined to pursue reprocessing, however, that Japan’s law for final disposal of high-level radioactive waste does not allow direct disposal of spent fuel in a deep underground repository. Additionally, in 2016, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry created a Nuclear Reprocessing Organization to which utilities must pay for the future cost of reprocessing before their fuel is unloaded from their reactors. The way out of this dead end is obvious. Japan should: Stop making reprocessing compulsory and amend the high-level waste disposal law to allow direct disposal of spent fuel as well as reprocessing waste in a future deep underground repository. Allowing direct disposal of spent fuel would make unnecessary the costly operation of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant: about $2 billion per year. Initiate an independent study on options to eliminate Japan’s accumulated stock of separated plutonium including direct disposal. One big step would be to accept the UK government’s offer to take title to Japan’s plutonium stored there if Japan is willing to pay for its disposal in the UK. Japan is the only non-nuclear-armed country that reprocesses. Abandoning reprocessing would reduce concerns about the potential use of its plutonium in weapons. It also would make it easier to persuade other states such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia to forgo reprocessing. Iran has already declared it has no interest in reprocessing.

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