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Long-Term Nuclear Program Planning Committee publishes costs of nuclear fuel cycle

The Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) Long Term Nuclear Program sets out Japan's basic policy on the research, development and utilization of nuclear energy. A review of this program commenced in June (see NIT 101). In the context of this review, a comparison was made of the costs of the nuclear fuel cycle, considering two basic methods of dealing with spent fuel: reprocessing and direct disposal (deep burial). This article discusses this cost comparison.

Why compare costs now?
Japan's basic policy is to reprocess all spent fuel. As of July, construction of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture is 95% complete. Given that construction is so far advanced, why was a cost comparison carried out now? Likely reasons are as follows:

1) At the end of last year the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry's (METI) Electricity Industry Committee revealed that the total backend costs of reprocessing would come to an enormous 18.8 trillion yen.
2) Costs of the direct disposal option were previously calculated in the 1990s by METI (when it was still MITI), the electric power industry and AEC, but the results were kept secret. This fact came to light this summer. At the same time it was also revealed that they had covered up the fact that the direct disposal option came out cheaper.

But beneath all this lies the fact that the fast breeder reactor program shows no signs of going ahead and there is a uranium surplus. Therefore, not only opponents of nuclear energy, but even supporters can see that the reprocessing policy is inappropriate.

Cost comparison of reprocessing and direct disposal
In order to make the comparison, first the costs of direct disposal were calculated, in light of overseas experience and Japan's own glass canister technology. In all, eight disposal methods were costed. The methods varied according to whether the canisters were to be buried in soft rock or hard rock, horizontally or vertically, at one disposal site or two, and containing two fuel assemblies or four. Thus a range of costs was produced. The cheapest method was to horizontally bury canisters containing four spent fuel assemblies. This came to 3,835 billion yen, assuming disposal in soft rock. The most expensive method was to vertically bury canisters containing two spent fuel assemblies. This came to 9,463 billion yen, assuming disposal in soft rock at two different sites.

Next, costs over a 60-year period for four scenarios were calculated and compared (table 1). (In these calculations, only five vertical disposal methods were considered.) In regard to the nuclear fuel cycle, the result was that the direct disposal option was 0.5~0.7 yen per kilowatt hour cheaper than the reprocessing option. This might not seem like a big difference, but in fact it is. If one considers the total cost, it works out at 121 trillion yen for reprocessing all the spent fuel, compared to 108.1~116.6 trillion yen for direct disposal. Thus the maximum difference works out at 13 trillion yen.

Table 1: Calculation Results (in Yen/kWh)

Full Reprocessing (3)

Partial Reprocessing (4)

Direct Disposal of all Spent Fuel (5)

Interim Storage (6)

Generation Cost (1)

Around 5.2

Around 5.1

Around 4.5-4.7

Around 4.7-4.8

Nuclear Fuel Cycle Cost (2)

Around 1.6

Around 1.4-1.5

Around 0.9-1.1

Around 1.1-1.2

Front End





Back End





(1) The figure used for the difference between the generation cost and the nuclear fuel cycle cost (3.6 Yen/kWh) was calculated by METI's Electricity Industry Committee.
(2) The economic value of the depleted uranium and the recovered uranium was not calculated. The economic value of plutonium is taken to be zero.
(3) All Spent Fuel will be reprocessed. The amount in excess of reprocessing capacity will be reprocessed after interim storage. A second commercial reprocessing plant will be built.
(4) Spent Fuel will be reprocessed, but the amount in excess of reprocessing capacity will be directly disposed of after interim storage. No second commercial reprocessing plant will be built.
(5) After interim storage, all spent fuel will be directly disposed of.
(6) Spent fuel will be stored for the time being. A decision about what to do with it will be made at an appropriate time in the future.

So does that mean AEC will shift its policy to direct disposal? Well, no. In addition to these calculations, they also calculated the 'cost of a change of policy'. This includes (1) as unrecoverable costs, investments already sunk into the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant plus the cost of dismantling the plant, and (2) the cost of additional thermal power supply to cover the shortage of electric power. This is because it is assumed that if the Rokkasho Plant doesn't go ahead, there will be nowhere to store the spent fuel and nuclear power plants will be shut down. These costs are around 0.2 yen/kWh and around 0.7~1.3 yen/kWh respectively. If these costs are added to the costs of direct disposal and interim storage, in the case of direct disposal the total works out at 5.4~6.2 yen/kWh, which is more expensive than the approximately 5.2 yen/kWh for full reprocessing.

But there is a trick in this line of reasoning. It is certainly necessary to consider the cost of changing policy, but this is the result of the failure of a program promoted by the national government and the power companies, so they should foot the bill. It isn't a cost that consumers should have to pay in their electricity rates. Furthermore, in regard to (2), fuel costs and the cost of CO2 abatement measures (emissions trading price) are calculated not just on the basis of the cheapest alternative, LNG. Coal and oil are also included in the calculation. This is very strange. Given that the impact of the failure of this program will be felt throughout the country, it is important to keep the costs as low as possible. Despite this, they have used high prices in their calculations.

Final Remarks
Promoters of nuclear energy have always strongly maintained that "nuclear power is economically viable", but now they have changed their tune to "economic viability isn't everything". But whether they really believe that reprocessing will succeed is unclear. The government doesn't want to admit its policy failure and power companies are profit oriented. They no doubt think that if reprocessing fails, the government will come to their rescue. Beneath the surface, the Long-Term Nuclear Program Planning Committee is putting off the final decision and trying to shove the blame onto someone else.

Tadahiro Katsuta (CNIC)

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