By Nagasaki Junichiro
In FY 2022, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) will reinstate subsidies for municipalities that introduce pluthermal energy, which utilizes plutonium processed out of spent nuclear fuel. Major utility companies are aiming to introduce pluthermal technology at more than 12 reactors by FY 2030, but only four reactors use the technology so far. METI hopes to encourage more communities to accept pluthermal reactors by offering subsidies that boost local economy.
Pluthermal power generation is part of the government’s “nuclear fuel-cycle” initiative that aims to generate nuclear power using MOX fuel, a mixture of uranium and plutonium, which is processed from spent fuel. Although Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited plans to complete a spent-fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture by the first half of FY 2022, it will only be able to operate at limited capacity without wider use of pluthermal technology in Japan. Japan already possesses roughly 46 tons of plutonium, and further increasing the stockpile will invite international concern as plutonium could be used in nuclear weapons.
The government had a subsidy program that delivered as much as 6 billion yen to prefectures agreeing to accept pluthermal technology before FY 2008 and up to 3 billion yen to those accepting the technology before FY 2014. Eight prefectures including Fukui, Ehime, and Saga received such subsidies, but applications are not being accepted at the moment.
METI will launch a new subsidy program targeting municipalities hosting nuclear plants that were excluded from the previous programs. Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tokai Daini Nuclear Power Plant (Ibaraki Prefecture) will be one of the candidates. The maximum amount provided could reach several billion yen.
So far, only four reactors using pluthermal technology are operating in Japan: The No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Kansai Electric Power Co. Takahama Plant (Fukui Prefecture); the No. 3 reactor at the Shikoku Electric Power Co. Ikata Palnt (Ehime Prefecture); and No. 3 reactor at the Kyushu Electric Power Co Genkai Plant (Saga Prefecture). The Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPC) aims to increase the number to 12 by FY 2030.
Progress toward pluthermal power generation has been stalled and its future uncertain at plants that received past subsidies, including the Chubu Electric Power Co. Hamaoka Plant (Shizuoka Prefecture) and Chugoku Electric Power Co. Shimane Plant (Shimane Prefecture). The plants are having difficulty obtaining approval from the Nuclear Regulation Authority and the local communities’ acceptance. Anti-nuclear sentiment is strong in Japan, and pluthermal technology provokes particularly strong resistance because of the nature of the technology that necessitates additional safely measures.