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Editorial: Time to set a course away from Japan's troubled nuclear fuel cycle

The Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility being constructed in the northern Japan prefecture of Aomori has cleared a safety inspection by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).

Spent fuel from Japan's nuclear power plants will be reprocessed at this facility, which will play a key role in Japan's "nuclear fuel cycle" policy. Under the policy, uranium and plutonium extracted from such fuel is to be processed for further use.

Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., the operator of the reprocessing facility, aims to complete construction by autumn next year, but there are no immediate prospects of the facility going into operation. On top of this, due to changes in the circumstances surrounding nuclear power, the meaning of the facility's existence is no longer clear.

The first issue to consider is declining demand for the use of fuel to be reprocessed at the facility. Such fuel was originally destined to go mainly to the Monju fast-breeder reactor in the western Japan prefecture of Fukui, but a spate of problems with the sodium-cooled reactor led to a decision in 2016 to decommission it. There are no plans to construct a replacement facility.

There were also plans to use reprocessed fuel at nuclear power stations to generate electricity, but there are only four reactors that can handle it, far fewer than the 16 to 18 originally planned.

As the situation stands, plutonium will start to pile up with no prospects of it being consumed. Reducing the amount produced is also an issue that needs to be addressed.

Japan already possesses more than 45 metric tons of surplus plutonium, and there are fears in international society that it could be converted for use in nuclear weapons. In 2018, the government pledged to reduce the amount. A realistic approach is not to reprocess the fuel in the first place.

Forming the backdrop to Japan's persistence with fuel reprocessing is the problem of how to handle the large amount of spent nuclear fuel being stored on the grounds of the reprocessing facility.

If Japan gives up on its nuclear fuel cycle policy, then the spent fuel will be sent back to nuclear power plants across the country. But those facilities are already pressed for storage space, making it difficult for them to accept the spent fuel.

The total cost of the reprocessing facility, including construction and maintenance costs, stands at 14 trillion yen. Some of the cost will be tacked onto electricity bills. There is a need to rethink the question of whether the public is receiving benefits commensurate with the huge investment into the facility.

NRA Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa said he would check with the minister of economy, trade and industry whether operation of the reprocessing plant was in line with the nation's energy policy.

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 a 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.

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