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Restart of Takahama nuke plant refuels question about spent MOX fuel

The No. 3 reactor, left, is seen at the Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture on Jan. 29, 2016. (Mainichi)

Japan has resumed its "pluthermal" power generation project using uranium-plutonium mixed oxide fuel (MOX fuel) for the first time in three years and 11 months, with the reactivation of the No. 3 reactor at the Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture on Jan. 29.

    The spent MOX fuel to be generated at the plant, however, will have nowhere to go for reprocessing, just as conventional spent nuclear fuel -- leaving Japan with yet another nuclear waste problem.

    "The reactor restart bears great significance in terms of promoting the nuclear fuel cycle," said Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Motoo Hayashi at a press conference on Jan. 29.

    The government has promoted the nuclear fuel cycle as part of its national policy and has been seeking to breed plutonium while using it to fuel fast-breeder reactors.

    However, the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture has hardly been operational due to a sodium leak accident in 1995 and a spate of other problems, giving way to the pluthermal project that emerged as an alternative way out.

    The prospect of successfully reprocessing spent nuclear fuel -- a precondition for the nuclear fuel cycle -- is nowhere in sight in Japan. Construction of the Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.'s spent fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, is lagging behind schedule, and spent fuel has been accumulating on the premises of each nuclear plant across the country. At the Takahama complex, spent nuclear fuel has filled two-thirds of its capacity.

    In October last year, the government drew up a plan to expand the country's capacity to hold spent nuclear fuel. Kansai Electric Power Co. unveiled a plan to start operating an interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel outside of Fukui Prefecture sometime around 2030, but no specific steps are in sight.

    While the destination of conventional spent nuclear fuel is already unclear, reprocessing of spent MOX fuel poses yet further challenges. Because spent MOX fuel is beyond the capacity of the Rokkasho plant, there needs to be built yet another plant dedicated to reprocessing spent MOX fuel. However, there's not even a blueprint for building such a plant.

    "For the time being, we will properly keep (spent MOX fuel) within the grounds of the Takahama plant," said a Kansai Electric Power Co. official.

    Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, said, "It is unclear whether spent nuclear fuel will really be reused, while the final disposal site has yet to be decided. It is likely that spent fuel will continue to be kept at each nuclear plant. Power companies are now facing the high price for having prioritized reactor restarts and construction."

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