By Tsugumasa Uchihata, editorial writer
Japan’s nuclear policy is based on the “nuclear fuel recycling” system, in which plutonium from spent nuclear fuel is recovered and used in reactors. Central to this policy is the reprocessing plant at Rokkasho (Aomori Prefecture) operated by Japan Nuclear Fund, Ltd (JNF). Recently, the plant received a report from the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) certifying that it has met the new nuclear safety standards. The Rokkasho plant is now only a step away from operation after 27 years since its construction began.
The Sankei Shimbun welcomed the news, stating, “It is a significant development in Japan’s progress toward a stable energy supply.” The paper added, “Nuclear power generation is necessary for maintaining Japan’s energy security as the country doesn’t possess energy resources such as petroleum and liquid natural gas.” It concluded, “As developing nations grow economically and require more energy, it is crucial for Japan to establish the nuclear fuel cycle system in order to achieve sustainable economic development.”
The JNF had originally planned to complete the reprocessing plant in four years, but it was plagued by trouble and the plan was delayed multiple times. Then the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holding’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant led to the establishment of new safety standards that plants must meet. The NRA ended up spending approximately seven years assessing the plant’s durability to withstand large-scale earthquakes and tornadoes. The original estimate of the construction cost, 760 billion yen, was far exceeded by the actual cost of more than 2 trillion yen.
The Sankei reasoned: “It is true that the JNF was ill-prepared and made missteps. However, we must consider whether the NRA-mandated fault study was appropriate and not excessive. A thorough assessment was necessary. But speed was called for to move the project ahead. While some criticize the large construction cost, we must realize that the JNF is a private entity and did not spend taxpayers’ money as ‘Monju’ did. We appreciate the efforts the JNF has made.”
The Yomiuri wrote, “This can be called a big step for the nuclear fuel cycle policy.” While recognizing criticism of the government policy, the paper also noted: “The significance of keeping the nuclear fuel cycle option is to secure stable energy sources in-house, without depending on imports of petroleum and natural gas…It is inadvisable to unnecessarily discard reprocessing technology that has been cultivated over many years as a national policy.”
The Nikkei also pointed out, “It carries significant meaning that the plant cleared the assessment stretched over six years and met the new safety standards established after the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No.1,” while adding, “The parties concerned should discuss the various issues facing the plant to see it in light of reality at the earliest possible time. The reprocessing plant should not be put in operation only because it had a large investment.”
In 2016, the government decommissioned the prototype fast-breeder reactor “Monju,” which was designed to burn reprocessed fuel, due to insufficient equipment inspection and other issues. Instead of “Monju,” the government planned to use 16 to 18 regular plutonium-thermal nuclear power reactors to consume the reprocessed fuel. However, it turned out that there are only four reactors currently available for such use. In addition, excess plutonium might invite unwanted speculation from overseas. Japan must consume plutonium produced by reprocessing the spent fuel.
The Asahi and the Mainichi both called for overhaul of the government nuclear policy. Both were strongly critical of the nuclear fuel cycle program.
The Asahi wrote: “Japan’s program to establish a nuclear fuel recycling system to recover plutonium from spent nuclear fuel to be reused in reactors, however, is already bankrupt beyond redemption. Operating the reprocessing plant simply does not make sense because of the many problems it entails with regard to nuclear proliferation, cost effectiveness, energy security and other important policy issues. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration should change its policy concerning nuclear fuel recycling. It would be irresponsible to maintain this unsustainable ‘national policy’ aimlessly simply because of the NRA’s verdict that ‘the plant meets the new safety standards’.”
The Mainichi wrote: “In the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and the ensuing nuclear disaster, many countries across the world turned in the direction of abandoning nuclear power. There are sufficient uranium resources in the world, and the justification for reprocessing as ‘effective utilization of limited resources’ has faded. The United States and Britain have already pulled out of the nuclear fuel cycle. Japan must avoid a situation in which it wastes time by sticking to a national policy and becomes laden with risks. The country should squarely face up to the fact that it is in a no-win situation, and search for an alternative to the nuclear fuel cycle policy.”
The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a drop in oil prices. However, if the situation in the Middle East worsens, prices would rise sharply. The fact remains that Japan has an urgent need to secure domestic energy resources.