” The main components of the government’s nuclear fuel recycling project have all been sidelined. But the program was already in a state of collapse even before the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster led to a shift in Japan’s energy policy.
After the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the Democratic Party of Japan-led government considered reviewing the recycling program. However, the current Liberal Democratic Party-led government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has clearly said in its basic energy plan that it will maintain the recycling program.
Abe is now stuck with a recycling project that shows no signs of functioning properly. Completion of a facility that will create mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel consisting of plutonium and uranium has been postponed.
Problems have continued at the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor. And for the 21st time, work has been delayed on building a facility that will reprocess spent nuclear fuel.
The Abe government’s policies on nuclear power generation are based on the assumption that the recycling program will be maintained. If the government decides to scrap the rickety program, it could be forced to abolish nuclear power plants.
In 1998, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL), which was set up by major electric power companies and is currently constructing the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, concluded a memorandum with the Aomori prefectural government and the Rokkasho village government.
Under the memorandum, if it becomes difficult to implement the reprocessing program, JNFL must remove the spent nuclear fuel that has accumulated at the still-incomplete reprocessing plant.
The logical places to transfer that spent nuclear fuel are the nuclear plants where the fuel was originally used. But spent fuel storage pools at these plants are already nearing capacity, and the plants could be forced to shut down to avoid creating additional nuclear waste.
Even if all nuclear power plants are abolished, Japan would still own more than 47 tons of plutonium. If the plutonium stockpile cannot be reduced through the recycling program, Japan could find itself in violation of an international accord on the possession of surplus plutonium.
Some countries could view Japan as a country aiming to use the plutonium for military purposes.
A Japan-U.S. nuclear power agreement that allows Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel as an exceptional case is scheduled for review in 2018. The agreement is based on the assumption that plutonium removed through reprocessing would again be used in nuclear power generation. If the prospects for the use of plutonium remain unclear, the bilateral negotiations on the agreement could be affected.
The nuclear fuel recycling program’s construction and maintenance costs will continue to increase. Following the liberalization of retail sales of electricity in Japan, it is becoming clearer that the recycling program will bring only a higher financial burden on electric power companies.
The motive for continuing the recycling program has been lost. ”