New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council Nuke Info Tokyo No. 108

From time to time NGOs are invited to send representatives to government policy committees and the like. Frequently, they do so knowing full well that they will be marginalized and that their proposals won’t be adopted. CNIC joined the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council (the Council) fully aware that this is the way it would probably turn out (NIT101). So far, they haven’t surprised us by allowing us to exert substantial influence.

Draft Nuclear Energy Policy Outline
On July 29th, the AEC released the Council’s Draft Nuclear Energy Policy Outline (Draft Outline). There was a four-week public comment period and the Council will meet soon after the election (September 11th) to consider the comments it received. It is highly likely that the draft will be endorsed as official policy quite quickly.

In the past the equivalent document was referred to as the Long-term Program for Research, Development, and Utilization of Nuclear Energy. The change in name this time reflects the view that the role of the AEC is only to determine basic policy, while it is up to the various government departments and agencies to fill in the details. Also, the Draft Outline is not seen as binding on private enterprise. Reflecting this view, it speaks throughout of hopes and expectations in regard to the decisions of private companies, although in practice they have little room to deviate from official policy. This is particularly true in regard to the backend of the nuclear fuel cycle (reprocessing, plutonium use and disposal of radioactive waste). However, the government cannot force them to meet its goals for nuclear power generation, or to build new nuclear reactors if they perceive nuclear power to be uneconomic.

The Draft Outline is the culmination of deliberations which began in June 2004. The Council issued ten interim reports and discussion documents prior to the Draft Outline. Of these, Nuke Info Tokyo has covered the Interim Report Concerning the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, released on 12 November 2004 (NIT 104). The Draft Outline is based on the contents of these earlier documents.

According to the Draft Outline, Japan’s policy is to use nuclear energy for strictly peaceful purposes and to ensure that it is used safely. The aim is to provide a secure supply of energy, to contribute to social welfare and to raise the standard of living of the citizens. The Draft Outline also takes the view that nuclear energy contributes to the amelioration of climate change. The scope of the Draft Outline is not restricted to nuclear energy. It also covers the research, industrial and medical use of radiation, but nuclear energy is the main focus. It claims to be a plan for the next ten years, but in fact it sets objectives for the next half century.

Major features of the proposed policy are as follows:
i. The historical policy of “reprocessing spent fuel and effectively using the plutonium and uranium recovered” is reconfirmed.
ii. For the time being, spent fuel will be reprocessed up to the limit of the capacity of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. The remainder will be stored. From 2010 consideration will be given to the question of what to do with the excess spent uranium fuel and with spent MOX fuel. A decision will be made well before the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is closed down.
iii. Research should be conducted into technology for the direct disposal of spent fuel to ensure policy flexibility.
iv. After 2030, nuclear power will at least maintain its present percentage of around 30-40% of electric power.
v. From around 2030, existing reactors will be replaced by improved light water reactors.
vi. Fast breeder reactors will be commercialized around 2050.
vii. The pluthermal program (use of MOX fuel in light water reactors) will go ahead.
viii. The aim is to have an operational site for the geological disposal of high-level waste by around 2030.
ix. It is expected that geological disposal will be used for some trans-uranium wastes. This may be at the same site as the high-level waste site.

International Review of Reprocessing Policy
Because Japan’s policy in regard to reprocessing and the use of plutonium is not simply a domestic issue, but one with serious international implications, an independent international panel was established to conduct a review of the Interim Report Concerning the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (Interim Report) issued last November (NIT 105). The International Chokei1 Review Commission (ICRC) has now completed its review. ICRC’s four overseas and five Japanese members were very critical of the methodology and the conclusions of the Interim Report. (Click here for final report. Click here for photos from international symposium involving ICRC members.)

The major defect with the methodology was that no clear system was established for prioritizing and weighting the individual items for assessment. Rather, a de facto weighting system was applied on the following basis. Those perspectives which where advantageous for the reprocessing option were emphasized, while those which were disadvantageous were either not taken into consideration or were played down. The reverse approach was applied to the direct disposal option. Whereas the real weaknesses of reprocessing were considered to be of no significance, imagination was employed to the utmost when identifying the weaknesses of direct disposal. In this way, the Interim Report was able to reach the conclusion that the reprocessing option was superior to the direct disposal option.

The biased approach taken in the Interim Report led to some quite bizarre conclusions. For example, it concluded, without analysis, that there was no significant difference between the reprocessing option and the direct disposal option in regard to the risk of nuclear proliferation. It reached this counter-intuitive conclusion by conflating the clear and present risk presented by above-ground separated plutonium with the risk, hundreds to tens of thousands of years hence, of plutonium buried with the spent fuel in geological repositories. This, it implied, could become a mine for weapons-usable plutonium. That assumes, of course, that human beings will still be capable of and interested in mining plutonium for nuclear weapons that far in the future.

This is just one example of the obvious bias of the Interim Report. Many more could be given if space allowed. But the purpose of the Interim Report was not to provide rational analysis. It was never intended to be anything other than a political exercise to clear the way for reprocessing. In this it was very successful. Although the Interim Report was just that – interim – and although the Draft Outline issued in July is still only a draft, both policy and praxis have been moving ahead at a rapid pace. Following the release of the Interim Report, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. and the Ministry for Economy Trade and Industry immediately took action. Uranium commissioning of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant commenced in December 2004. Then, in May 2005, the Reprocessing Fund Law2 was passed and became law. In this way, even before the finalization of the Nuclear Energy Policy Outline, major decisions have been taken based on the conclusions of the Interim Report.

Future Prospects
Although implementation of the policy laid out in the Draft Outline has already begun, there are still major obstacles to be overcome. In regard to reprocessing and plutonium use, it is far from clear that these will progress smoothly. They present major unsolved technical and economic challenges. In regard to electric power generation targets, utilities’ decisions about construction of new reactors will be based on commercial judgments. The international evidence suggests that nuclear is not the preferred choice in a competitive energy market. The Draft Outline is vague about how far the government will go to provide incentives for new nuclear power plants, but it indicates a clear preference for private enterprise to invest its own resources.

A major theme running through the Draft Outline is restoring public trust in nuclear energy. It acknowledges that accidents and scandals over the last decade have greatly damaged the public perception of nuclear energy. The solutions proposed are a commitment to a safety culture and prioritization of transparency, consultation, developing public understanding and so on. These are all fine sentiments. The problem is whether an inherently insular and secretive industry can deliver. Accidents and scandals of one sort or another keep popping up. It is very doubtful whether the nuclear industry can establish a clean track record for long enough for public distrust to subside. However, unless it does subside it will be exceedingly difficult to find candidate sites for new power plants or radioactive waste disposal facilities.

CNIC Participation
Over the last few years CNIC has challenged the AEC to public debates about its nuclear energy policy, particularly in regard to the nuclear fuel cycle. Given that background, there was logic in CNIC joining the New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council. It was a very vexed decision at the time, but we decided that our Co-Director, Hideyuki Ban, should represent us on the Council. He has submitted written and verbal statements to almost all the sessions. These are in themselves a valuable resource (only available in Japanese, unfortunately). It has also been a valuable learning experience for many of our staff.

However, there was one particular defect in the process that makes CNIC’s future involvement problematic. Mid-way through the process, AEC’s Chairman stated that AEC was legally bound to promote nuclear energy. It could not consider the option of phasing out nuclear energy. He based this claim on the wording of the Atomic Energy Basic Law. We believe that consideration should be given to changing this law, but even as it now stands, we disagree with this rigid interpretation. We strongly believe that nuclear policy reviews must consider the option of a nuclear phase-out.

Despite our criticisms of the process and conclusions of the New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council, we believe that our participation has been worthwhile. There were aspects of the deliberations this time which were different from previous Long-Term Nuclear Programs and which could lay the ground for future changes. Despite all its failings, the Interim Report for the first time ever gave credence to alternatives to reprocessing. Also, never before has so much attention been given to the loss of public trust caused by nuclear industry failures and to the need to ensure safety. CNIC was probably invited to participate to help give voice to these new perspectives. It will be very interesting to see whether future reviews build on these positive developments.

Philip White (NIT Editor)

1. Chokei refers to the Long-term Plan.
2. Our abbreviated translation

Scenes from an international symposium held on 4 September involving ICRC members (see also next article)

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