Japan: Meti's Bullish Back-End Plans

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Japan's key nuclear players, including the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (Meti) and all nuclear operators, circled their wagons this week around maximizing plutonium use in light-water reactors, with Meti declaring this "indispensable" for the sustained use of nuclear power. Apart from its bullish tone, the policy is little changed from similar statements last July although the difficulties in realizing it remain daunting. "We have launched measures for spent fuel management and back-end systems which are indispensable for the sustainable utilization of nuclear power," Meti Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama told a virtual ministerial council on spent nuclear fuel (SNF) management May 25. The meeting included leading officials from Meti's Agency for Natural Resources and Energy alongside the presidents of Japan's 11 major utilities, and chief executives of Japan Atomic Power Co. and Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL). Kyushu Electric Power Co. President Kazuhiro Ikebe represented the FEPC. However, JNFL faces technical and regulatory challenges to produce mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel that lie at the heart of such plans, and there are only a limited number of reactors that could potentially use Mox fuel. This week's declaration by both Meti and the FEPC came amid further indications of a divide within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party government over the role of nuclear power itself in Japan. News reports have stated that the sixth basic energy plan will retain the existing 20%-22% target share for nuclear by fiscal 2030, although a Meti spokesperson told Energy Intelligence that "it is not true that the power share targets for fiscal 2030 have already been decided." However, the phrase "maximizing the use of nuclear power plants” was reportedly dropped from the section on "green growth” in a growth strategy implementation plan discussed by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his cabinet Jun. 2. FEPC President Ikebe issued a five-point outline for member companies "to advance toward the early establishment of the nuclear fuel cycle.” In line with the "Plutonium Utilization Plan" issued in February 2021, Ikebe stated that "as a medium- to long-term initiative, all utilities will consider introducing as much plutonium as possible into all operating reactors, based on the understanding of local residents, to balance the supply and demand of plutonium.” Specifically, Ikebe related that the FEPC aims to promote the use of modest amounts of Mox fuel, which mixes plutonium and uranium, in 12 reactors (NIW Dec.24'20). The renewed emphasis on a plutonium-based back-end fuel cycle is in line with similar views expressed at a council meeting last July, and represents a continued shift away from the council's encouragement of "strategic flexibility” in SNF management which was laid out at a November 2018 meeting, although even then Mox use was promoted for the long term (NIW Jul.10'20). The most recent iteration of the Mox push follows the Nuclear Regulation Authority's (NRA) July 2020 confirmation that basic design changes at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (RRP) conform with post-Fukushima safety standards. However, at the time NRA Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa questioned whether completion of the RRP is "justified" under the country's basic energy plan (NIW May22'20). To cope with increased pressure on SNF storage, Ikebe said the spent fuel storage promotion plan, including onsite dry storage and other types of interim storage projects by seven operators, has been revised to expand storage capacity by 4,000 metric tons uranium by 2025 and 6,000 tU by 2030 so that "reprocessing and the expansion of interim storage will progress in tandem.” Additionally the plan calls for supporting government efforts to develop technology to handle spent Mox fuel. A total figure for existing SNF storage capacities was not provided but FEPC figures last year showed a total of 21.4 tU existed at nuclear power plants as of March 2020, with 75% of that on average filled (NIW Jul.10'20). JNFL Executive President Naohiro Masuda told the council that the required safety upgrades for the RRP will be completed in the first half of fiscal 2022, after which JNFL will need local consent of the host Mutsu City and Aomori prefecture governments before commencing operation. Masuda also confirmed that the accompanying Mox Fuel Fabrication Plant was on schedule for completion in the first half of fiscal 2024 after a delay from fiscal 2022 to comply with NRA's required safety upgrades. According to a report by the Japan Atomic Industry Forum, Kajiyama said that he saw the FEPC and JNFL presentations as "expressions of determination toward early establishment of the nuclear fuel cycle” and called on the FEPC and its member companies to adopt a proactive approach in five areas, including promotion of pluthermal (Mox) fuel use. Uncertainties However, this vision continues to be clouded by major uncertainties, not the least of which is whether the JNFL can meet its target start-up dates for the RRP and Mox fabrication plant. Both plants have encountered years of delays and extended start-up target dates. The latest extensions came after the NRA's Fuketa said that a plan to operate the RRP by the end of September 2021 would be "challenging" (NIW Jul.31'20). A month after he made that statement JNFL extended its safety upgrade completion dates for the RPP, its Mox fabrication plant and its waste storage facility to their current schedules (NIW Aug.28'20). Meanwhile, only four of the 12 reactors now earmarked for use of modest amounts of Mox fuel have been restarted. These include Kansai Electric's Takahama-3 and -4 in Fukui prefecture, Kyushu Electric's Genkai-3 in Saga prefecture and Shikoku Electric's Ikata-3 in Ehime, which is currently off line (NIW May28'21). Prospects for the remaining eight reactors listed in the FEPC plan are uncertain, including J-Power's Ohma advanced boiling water reactor, originally designed to run largely on Mox. Two of the 12 reactors, namely Kansai's Ohi-1 and -2, are earmarked for decommissioning. Citizens's Nuclear Information Center Secretary-General Hajime Matsukubo cautioned in an email that "plutonium from spent [Mox] is not suitable for use in light-water reactor, so until the nuclear industry finds ways to use it, spent Mox fuel will accumulate in SNF pools since it is four times more radioactive than ordinary SNF." One senior industry professional acknowledged that JNFL's performance "has been disappointing," but told Energy Intelligence that nuclear power plants cannot operate with SNF pools filled to near capacity as they will lack "full-core margins" necessary to allow for spent fuel from other reactors in emergencies. "This full-core margin is now being threatened in several nuclear reactors." He also claimed that onsite dry storage is still not acceptable to "most" localities with nuclear power plants, another reason why "reprocessing and use of Mox fuel using plutonium is a must to continue operation of nuclear power plants and must be a priority for this and any administration that is not determined to phase out nuclear power." However, the NRA's Fuketa is encouraging a move to dry storage and several utilities are already moving in that direction (NIW Jul.10'20). Dennis Engbarth, Taipei City

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