CNIC Statement: Stop reprocessing in France and get out of the nuclear fuel cycle

27 June 2023

On May 19, the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) announced its policy to reprocess spent MOX fuel in France, and on June 12, the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, the National Nuclear Reprocessing Organization (NuRO), Kansai Electric Power Co. and others announced somewhat more specific information.

According to them, reprocessing of spent MOX fuel is positioned as a demonstration study. The electric power companies will outsource the demonstration study to JNFL and JAEA, which intend to outsource the demonstration study to France’s Orano. At the same time, NuRO plans to commission the actual reprocessing to Orano. The fuel transportation is scheduled for the latter half of the 2020s, and the reprocessing demonstration will be conducted in the early 2030s. The plutonium recovered from the reprocessing will be processed into MOX fuel and returned to Japan, where it will be used by the nuclear operator that shipped it out.

The amount of spent fuel to be transported and reprocessed is 200 tons, of which 10 tons is spent MOX fuel and 190 tons is spent uranium fuel. These are mixed and reprocessed. If the information released is correct, the reprocessing ratio is 19 tons of spent uranium fuel to 1 ton of spent MOX fuel.

Currently, Kyushu Electric Power, Shikoku Electric Power, and Kansai Electric Power (Kanden) are the three electric power companies that have been able to implement MOX fuel operations. The 200 tons of spent fuel in this case is all from Kanden. According to Kanden, it has achieved its goal of finding a candidate site outside of Fukui Prefecture by the end of 2023, and has thus “fulfilled its promise to the governor for the time being.” Kanden is now considering future expansion, saying, “In the future, we will review the scale of the project to an appropriate level, as needed.” If Kanden is going ahead with a new offshore reprocessing project to make good on its promise to Fukui Prefecture, nothing could be more foolish.

On the other hand, the FEPC cites a reference in the Sixth Strategic Energy Plan as the reason for overseas reprocessing. The Plan states, “With regard to the treatment and disposal of spent MOX fuel, we will continue our research and development efforts while considering the status of spent MOX fuel generation and storage, trends in reprocessing technology, and the intentions of related local governments, with the aim of establishing the technology in the late 2030s.” However, there is no indication that any consideration has been given to the technological trends and intentions.

Since the above Strategic Energy Plan does not mention reprocessing of spent MOX fuel through international cooperation, it is believed that this was decided at a top-level meeting between Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Nishimura and French Minister of Energy Transition Pannier-Runacher. This raises the suspicion that this is a deal to bail out Orano.

Doubts further extend to costs. Japan will of course bear the huge transportation costs, but this is nothing compared to the reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication costs for which Orano will basically be able to set their own price. The contract is likely to be signed in the near future, but it is unforgivable that the wasteful costs invested in keeping up the appearance of a functioning reprocessing policy will be passed on to the consumers.

In addition, there is the problem of surplus plutonium. France has about 14 tons of Japan’s extracted plutonium in storage. To ignore this problem and further increase plutonium through reprocessing contracts is a violation of the international pledge not to possess surplus plutonium.

Although FEPC justifies its decision by saying that the demonstration in France will “contribute greatly to the establishment of reprocessing technology in Japan in the future as a nuclear operator,” the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant has been postponed for the 27th time, and the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s examination of the plant makes it unlikely that JNFL will be able to complete construction as it envisions.

The escalating story-telling needed to keep the nuclear fuel cycle policy alive, should be stopped. There is no rational or justifiable reason for this policy from any perspective, including that of reprocessing technology, cost, or surplus plutonium. The wiser choice is to begin a serious review of Japan’s entire nuclear fuel cycle policy.

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