Editorial: Japan must earnestly take up issue of spent nuclear fuel disposal
For half a century, Japan has stuck to a "nuclear fuel cycle" policy under which all spent nuclear fuel from the nation's nuclear power plants was to be reprocessed and used again in nuclear reactors. However, no efforts have been made to bring the policy in line with reality. Having experienced the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, the government must now make bold policy changes.
The Japan Atomic Energy Commission last week compiled four options pertaining to the future of the nuclear fuel cycle to correspond with the future of nuclear power generation in Japan.
According to the various scenarios, if Japan were to get rid of all of its nuclear reactors in 30 years, then all spent nuclear fuel should be disposed of directly. If nuclear power covered 15 percent of Japan's power generation by that time, a "concurrent" approach of reprocessing some spent fuel and directly disposing of other spent fuel would be appropriate, and if the ratio of nuclear reactors stood at between 20 and 25 either a concurrent approach or full reprocessing of spent fuel would be appropriate. Under the zero nuclear plant scenario, operations of the fast breeder reactor Monju would also be halted.
Due to the costs involved, technical issues and safety concerns, we have called for the government to halt reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and to draw the curtains on Japan's nuclear fuel cycle. The Atomic Energy Commission's options have opened the way for the government to alter its policy on the fuel cycle. It is strange that the government is adhering to a policy of reprocessing.
The nuclear fuel reprocessing plant being constructed by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, doesn't have the capacity to reprocess all of the spent fuel produced by Japan's nuclear power plants. The idea of reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel in Japan was unrealistic from the outset. Since the government is trumpeting a policy of reducing dependence on nuclear power, any adoption of a "concurrent" approach in handling spent nuclear fuel raises serious doubts.
It is not only the cost that is of concern: From the perspective of nuclear nonproliferation, it is problematic to keep on reprocessing spent nuclear fuel when there are no prospects of using the plutonium that the process would produce as fuel.
In the Atomic Energy Commission's report on the various scenarios, it should be noted that there are outstanding issues to be addressed no matter which option is adopted. Development of technology and consideration of a system to directly dispose of spent nuclear fuel were left by the wayside under past government policy. The government must quickly take action and seriously consider dry storage of spent nuclear fuel. This is important not only from the perspective of lessening the risks associated with storing spent fuel in pools, but also in terms of securing an interim storage facility for the direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel.
Concerns have been raised that a government switch to a policy of direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel would adversely affect Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. and local bodies. It is the government's responsibility to address these concerns. One option could be for Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. to engage in other activities such as nuclear plant decommissioning work. Those benefitting from the work associated with such a change could perhaps also be made to bear part of the responsibility for storing the spent fuel. We call on the government to consider these issues.
The final disposal of high-level nuclear waste is an important topic no matter which option Japan selects, and the nation must take up the issue in earnest. Aimlessly continuing to operate nuclear power plants amounts to shifting the burden of spent nuclear fuel disposal onto the shoulders of our descendants.
A probe has been launched into secret meetings held by a subcommittee of the Atomic Energy Commission on the nuclear fuel cycle, which were attended by interested parties. Needless to say, depending on the results of the probe, the commission report on the fate of spent nuclear fuel will have to be reviewed.
June 26, 2012(Mainichi Japan)