Japan, with few resources, has set as a pillar of its nuclear policy a nuclear fuel cycle in which spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants is reprocessed for use as fuel.
A reprocessing plant in the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, the facility at the center of this policy, has in effect passed the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s safety inspections. This can be called a big step for the policy.
Plant operator Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. filed an application with the NRA for inspections in 2014. The NRA has evaluated the safety of the plant from various angles, such as scenarios in which earthquakes, tornadoes or plane crashes occur in the area. It took over six years to complete the inspections, which indicates that they were unprecedented screenings using trail and error.
JNFL expects to operate the plant in 2022 after going through necessary procedures such as gaining the consent of local governments. Since the plant’s construction started, 27 years have passed and the cost has reached nearly ¥3 trillion. Aiming for operations to start as soon as possible is needed.
Even if the reprocessing plant can operate, there are many things to be done before the nuclear fuel cycle can be fully realized.
The government initially drew a future vision to permanently circulate nuclear fuel by using plutonium, extracted from spent nuclear fuel, at a fast breeder reactor.
However, the Monju fast breeder reactor, the core facility of this vision, was decided to be decommissioned in 2016 in the wake of a succession of technical troubles. For the time being, plutonium from the reprocessing plant will be utilized at ordinary nuclear plants.
Under such circumstances, some critics have said the government should abandon the nuclear fuel cycle policy. However, it is inadvisable to unnecessarily discard reprocessing technology that has been cultivated over many years as a national policy.
In the international community, Japan is in an exceptional position in which it can reprocess spent nuclear fuel despite possessing no nuclear weapons.
Because plutonium can be used in nuclear weapons, excess amounts of the material come under scrutiny from abroad. It is indispensable to make efforts not to increase this volume by steadily consuming at nuclear power plants the plutonium produced in the course of reprocessing.
The Rokkasho reprocessing plant and nuclear power plants across the country are accumulating in their fuel pools spent nuclear fuel that has nowhere to go. Once the reprocessing plant starts to operate, it will open the way to overcoming this issue.
The significance of keeping the nuclear fuel cycle option is to secure stable energy sources in-house, without depending on the import of petroleum and natural gas. Nuclear power plants are essential from the perspective of preventing global warming because they do not emit carbon dioxide.
The government plans for nuclear power generation to make up 20-22% of the composition of power sources in fiscal 2030. From a long-term perspective, the nuclear fuel cycle policy must advance.
— This article appeared in the print version of The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 20, 2020.