Report on the struggle of a Nuclear Power Subcommittee Member (2) Nuke Info Tokyo No. 163

New support policies for nuclear power plants as Japan moves toward the deregulation of electrical power / Excuses for extending the life of Monju

Mr. Hideyuki Ban of CNIC has served as a member of the Nuclear Power Subcommittee of the Electricity and Gas Industry Committee under the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy since June 2014. He is participating in the discussions from the standpoint of a phaseout of nuclear power, supporters of which are a small minority in the subcommittee. This article is one in a series of reports on the work of the subcommittee as seen through his eyes.
The question of a video of the deliberations not being made public, as reported in Nuke Info Tokyo 162, has still not been resolved. The current situation is that poor quality audio recording of the proceedings will be made available on the Internet up to the time when the minutes of the meetings are published. An audio live Internet  broadcast is also not provided.
In addition, discussions in the Radioactive Wastes Working Group, on which Mr. Ban also serves as a member, restarted on October 23 after deliberations ended following the publication of an interim report in May.1)

This report covers deliberations in the Nuclear Power Subcommittee up to the seventh meeting.

The third meeting (July 23) heard reports from the power companies and the host municipalities on the moves toward a reduction of dependence on nuclear power. The fourth meeting (August 7) concerned the maintenance of nuclear power engineers and other human resources (but this will not be dealt with in this report). The fifth meeting (August 21) discussed maintenance of the nuclear power business (nuclear power plants and the nuclear fuel cycle) under power industry deregulation, which was continued in the sixth meeting (September 16). The topic of the seventh meeting (October 2) was contributions toward the global peaceful use of nuclear power.

Policies to support nuclear power under power industry deregulation

Up to now, Japanese consumers have been unable to choose the power company from which they purchase their power. The system has been that, except for large-scale customers of 50 kW and over, if you live in Tokyo then you have no option but to contract with the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) for power, and if you live in Osaka then you are forced to contract with Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO).

One of the election pledges of the Abe administration was the bold implementation of power system reform. A bill on the total deregulation of the power industry (making it possible for ordinary consumers to contract with any power company they like) was passed into law by the Diet, and deregulation will be implemented from 2016. A bill separating the power generation and power transmission sectors of each of the power companies is also scheduled to be submitted to the regular session of the Diet in 2015, with implementation planned for 2020. It is anticipated that these laws will help make cheap power available and give impetus to renewable energy, which has greater support among citizens.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has always claimed that nuclear power is cheap, but the subcommittee, while tacitly recognizing that nuclear power will be weeded out under deregulation due to its higher costs, is considering what the government can do to ensure the continuing existence of nuclear power plants.

In order to continue to use nuclear power plants, it is necessary to rebuild (replace) power plants or construct new ones. However, the cost of building a nuclear reactor is enormous, at about 400 billion yen each, and it is said that a competitive environment would make investment in new reactor construction impossible. The power companies say that they are prepared to “promote the nuclear power generation business as private business and restructure the safe and stable supply of Japan’s energy and the security framework” (Hideki Toyomatsu, subcommittee’s expert member, Kansai Electric Power Company), but are demanding that the government provide institutional support to back up this preparedness.
An example cited was the case of the Contract for Difference (CfD), now being considered in the UK as a means to ensure the establishment of an environment for the replacement or new construction of nuclear reactors.2)

The examples of loan guarantees for advanced nuclear power plants and guarantees against construction delays for new nuclear power plant construction that have been introduced by the US government were also discussed. While there was no clear indication of the introduction of such a system into Japan, it seemed that consideration was being given to some kind of similar support measures. Even if such support measures are introduced, citizens living close to NPSs or where they are planned are strengthening their opposition to NPSs more than ever before. For example, all the city assemblies around the Sendai NPS have decided against the proposed new Unit 3 there.

At the same time, the subcommittee envisaged that the huge investments made necessary by the strengthening of safety standards would lead to the decommissioning of some nuclear power plants. It is possible that some nuclear power plants that have not yet been operable for 40 years will remain shut down. If these are decommissioned, the remaining fixed assets would be instantly written off, resulting in large financial losses. Examples of special measures in other countries were given as means to avoid this. The background to these arguments is that the government wishes to encourage the decommissioning of obsolescent nuclear power plants in order to reduce dependence on nuclear power.

Rethinking the cost of nuclear power plants

One of the reasons why the introduction of a concrete system has not come into view is the issue of the cost of power generation. The media is reporting that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has begun estimations of power generation cost by different power sources. It seems that METI will review the calculations it made in 2011. According to the estimations at that time, the cost of generation by nuclear power was assessed at “from 8.9 yen/kWh”. For this, damages due to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident were calculated to be 5.8 trillion yen. There is still no final settlement for the total damages from the Fukushima nuclear accident, but since the generation cost rises 0.1 yen for each trillion yen increase in damages, the generation cost is assessed with the prefix “from”. 3)
Assessing the cost of power generation by nuclear power over a range is based on the fact that the Atomic Energy Damage Compensation Act (AEDCA) imposes unlimited liability for the accident on the power company. Nevertheless, after the Fukushima accident had actually occurred, new mechanisms were brought into play to avoid the collapse of TEPCO. It appears that the government is now thinking along the lines of a negative reform in which unlimited liability becomes limited liability. In the case of limited liability, only a limited sum of money is included in the generation cost of nuclear power, resulting in a change in the direction of reducing the cost of nuclear power generation.

If the cost estimation includes the cheaper cost of new NPSs which meet the new regulation, it would not be necessary to introduce a new support system such as CfD.

Nationalization of reprocessing?

As it is government policy to maintain the nuclear fuel cycle, a proposal was submitted to the 5th and 6th meetings to strengthen government involvement in the trouble-ridden Rokkasho reprocessing plant, which is still unable to function fully as expected, and to support it by turning the facility into a government-approved corporation. Some committee members voiced the opinion that the reprocessing plant should be nationalized, but METI suggested the policy of not nationalizing the facility for the reason of “making use of private dynamism”. It is also said that the Ministry of Finance is opposed to nationalization.

At present, the cost of reprocessing is included in electricity bills, and each power company entrusts the funds with the public utility foundation Radioactive Waste Management Funding and Reserve Center in accordance with their nuclear power generating capacity. However, it is said that even with this system to protect reprocessing, there is a possibility that power industry deregulation will force the reprocessing project into liquidation.

The author insists that maintaining the reprocessing project is unnecessary, but many of the subcommittee members claim that reprocessing is required for reasons of national policy. A proposal to commission the reprocessing project to the private sector has also been presented to the subcommittee. While a specific policy proposal is yet to be put forward, in order to maintain reprocessing under the excuse that “it will lead to benefits for the whole country”, a mechanism is being sought for levying the cost of reprocessing widely across consumers, including those who use renewable energy.

The spent nuclear fuel problem

The problem of spent (waste) nuclear fuel came up for discussion at the sixth meeting, but there was no serious discussion on the handling of the roughly 17,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel that has continued to accumulate in the spent fuel pools at each of the nuclear power plant sites (Table 1).

Without the approval of the prefectures that host nuclear power plants to store spent fuel onsite, it is necessary to construct storage facilities outside the prefecture, but it seems that this approval will not be easily obtained. Since the power companies are the owners of the spent fuel, they are required to secure the storage capability. The power companies have avoided the storage problem saying that if reprocessing proceeds as expected, then securing new storage sites will become unnecessary. For this reason, as we have seen with the voicing of opinions in the subcommittee, there appears to exist the optimistic notion that if the government will support reprocessing then this will resolve the spent fuel storage problem.

Fast reactor or fast breeder reactor?

At the sixth meeting, mysterious documentation on Monju was handed out by the secretariat. Handouts in the subcommittee consist of “documentation” and “reference materials”. Both included precisely identical nuclear fuel cycle diagrams, but in the “documentation” this was labelled “Fast Reactor Cycle”, whereas the “reference materials” carried the label “Fast Breeder Reactor Cycle”. Further, with reference to the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, included in the same nuclear fuel cycle diagram, the “documentation” labelled the plant as “In the final testing stage”. While the “reference materials” labelled it as “In the final testing stage: Improvement of the facility for high-level liquid waste vitrification (scheduled for completion in October 2014)”.

The author believes that this can be taken as a formal change of policy from the former fast breeder reactor development to fast reactor development. Moreover, the “Monju Research Plan” announced in 2013 gave the term “fast breeder reactor/fast reactor” showing equivalence for both types of reactor.
The Basic Energy Plan (April 2014) positioned Monju as “an international research base for volume reduction and reduction of the degree of toxicity of waste materials and improvements in technology related to nuclear non-proliferation.” Monju was constructed as a fast breeder prototype reactor, but if it has lost its position as a breeder reactor, it will be necessary to devise a new raison d’être for it. That is, volume and degree of toxicity reduction. As Japan is totally at a loss about how to resolve the high-level waste disposal problem, if it can be said to be “useful for volume reduction”, it might then be easier to gain acceptance for a restart of operations at Monju.

Doubts about the potential for reduction in the degree of toxicity

Reduction of volume and the degree of toxicity is nothing new. In the latter half of the 1980s, active research efforts were made into what was known as partitioning and transmutation  research and the Phoenix Project. Research involving international cooperation was also carried out under the Omega Plan (A Proposal to Exchange Scientific and Technological Information Concerning Options Making Extra Gains of Actinides and Fission Products Generated in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle under OECD/+NEA International Cooperation), but had to be abandoned due to the inability to derive practical applications.

The subcommittee documentation claims that if spent nuclear fuel from Light Water Reactors is reprocessed and vitrified, the volume will be reduced to one quarter of the original, and further, will be reduced to one-seventh of the volume by the use of a fast reactor. However, it is meaningless to compare just the volumes of the spent fuel and the vitrified product. Uranium separated out by reprocessing is itself a waste product, and large amounts of radioactive waste materials are also produced in the process of reprocessing. It is the total volume of all this waste that should be compared. It is also calculated that the degree of toxicity after 1000 years will be twelve thousandths (12/1000) for LWR spent fuel directly disposed of after reprocessing, but four thousandths (4/1000) if reprocessed by fast reactor.

Using a fast reactor to bombard the spent fuel with high-energy neutrons will theoretically cause the minor actinides (Americium and Neptunium etc.) to fission, but this author believes that it is actually impossible, or extremely difficult, to realize this assumption. Whether or not the minor actinides can be fully separated from the high-level radioactive waste liquid separated out by reprocessing, and whether the minor actinides can be made to fission smoothly in the fast reactor are in doubt. In some cases, there is a fear that radionuclides with an even longer half life will be produced. Even if the technological outlook for this is favourable, the process of removing the minor actinides from the high-level radioactive waste liquid and then a process for fabricating the fuel using remote equipment would be required, necessitating a large-scale and complex facility for realization.

The significance of using Monju for volume reduction research, from which successful outcomes cannot be anticipated, is something that requires a serious rethink.

Contributions to global non-proliferation?

Contributions toward global peaceful use of nuclear power was the theme of the seventh meeting. A presentation was given by Dr. Charles D. Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists. What remained in my impression of his presentation was the sentence, “We now stand at the juncture of whether the world will be contaminated by the nuclear inferno or destroyed by climate change.” That the solution for this is nuclear power is something that I cannot accept. This author’s position is that whatever mechanisms are introduced into nuclear power plants, they will never be able to reduce the risk of proliferation to zero, and climate change can be mitigated by means other than nuclear power plants.

There was no new content concerning proliferation in the subcommittee’s documentation. The government wishes to claim that it can contribute to the global peaceful use of nuclear power through the export of nuclear power plants, and the grounds for this, it was explained, was that thoroughly ensuring peaceful use through bilateral agreements can prevent proliferation.

This author, however, is concerned that the export of nuclear power plants will, conversely, lead to nuclear proliferation, and not contribute to non-proliferation. I emphasized that preparing a position document on actual cases of bilateral agreements that allow reprocessing will probably not contribute to non-proliferation.

(Hideyuki Ban, Co-Director of CNIC)

1) Please see the article in NIT 161 at
3) (In Japanese)

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