|Since around the end of 2003 there has been quite a lot of movement on the pluthermal1 issue. This article is a report on these developments.
In September 2002 Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) returned the MOX1 fuel that it had intended to use in its Takahama-4 reactor (PWR 870 MW, commenced operation in 1985) to the UK. This was because BNFL had falsified fuel fabrication quality control data. After returning the fuel, in October 2003 KEPCO submitted a revised plan to the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry (METI), Fukui Prefecture and Takahama Town regarding quality control of MOX fuel procured from overseas. Since then it has been through a review process with the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) regarding its revised quality assurance system. NISA gave its approval in February this year, and in March KEPCO received the consent of Fukui Prefecture and Takahama Town regarding fuel fabrication. It received prior consent to load MOX fuel in 1999.
Having obtained the relevant approvals, in March of this year KEPCO entered into a contract for the fabrication of MOX fuel with COGEMA of France. It intends to complete the fuel fabrication and load it in 2008. Citizens' groups have made representations to KEPCO and Fukui Prefecture demanding that KEPCO cancel its MOX plan.
At a meeting of its board of directors on 28th April this year Kyushu Electric Power Company (Kyushu Electric) adopted a policy to use MOX fuel in its Genkai-3 Reactor (PWR 1,180 MW, commenced operation in 1994). It submitted notice regarding its policy and its intention to hold local explanatory meetings to the local and regional governments, Genkai Town and Saga Prefecture. It will now proceed with the explanatory meetings and, at a time that it deems propitious, submit a formal application for prior approval of its pluthermal plan, based on a safety agreement, to the regional and local governments. It will also apply to the central government for permission to vary its nuclear reactor license to allow for the use of MOX fuel.
Kyushu Electric had previously said, "We will implement pluthermal by 2010 at one reactor at either Genkai or Sendai." This latest decision confirms what had already been rumored, namely that pluthermal would be implemented at Genkai-3. At one stage the media was putting the date at 2008, but Kyushu Electric says, "It would be difficult to implement pluthermal by 2008." The best guess at this stage would seem to be 2009.
As for the reason for choosing Genkai-3, Kyushu Electric says that this choice will enable it to load more fuel at once into a single reactor. For either Reactor No. 3 or 4, by replacing a quarter of the reactor core with MOX fuel, it would be possible to load a total of 48 fuel assemblies, more than for the other reactors owned by Kyushu Electric. Reactor No. 3 was preferred over No. 4 because of its greater working space.
Kyushu Electric has entered into contracts with the UK and France for the reprocessing of a total of 380 tons of spent fuel. Its officially published overseas plutonium stocks were 2.9 tons, as at the end of March this year.
Company President, Shingo Matsuo, says of the new policy, "This is our first attempt to implement pluthermal, so we have decided to announce our intentions in advance of submitting our request for prior approval. From now on we hope to adopt a wide range of approaches in an open process in order to gain public understanding for our plans." Governor Yasushi Furukawa of Saga Prefecture stated, "Once the application for prior approval of the pluthermal plan is submitted, I hope the debate will proceed in an open and neutral fashion. The basis for a judgment about implementation of the plan will be whether or not the understanding of the local and surrounding councils and of the citizens of the Prefecture has been obtained."
Action against the pluthermal proposal began immediately. Representations against the plan were submitted and a signature campaign begun, centered around the Kyushu branch of the Network to Abandon Nuclear Energy and the Saga Peace Movement Center.
On 10th May, the President of Shikoku Electric Power Company (Shikoku Electric), Jun Ohnishi, visited Ehime Prefecture Governor, Moriyuki Kato, to submit a request for prior approval to use MOX fuel in its Ikata-3 Reactor (PWR 890 MW, commenced operation in 1994). He also submitted a request for prior approval to Ikata Town. The relevant offices of Ehime Prefecture and Ikata Town will now consider the application and, if they give their approval, Shikoku Electric will apply to the central government for permission to vary its reactor license.
President Ohnishi said, "As we move steadily forward with our plan, gaining the understanding of the local people as we go along, we intend to place top priority on safety." Governor Kato said, "I hope the plan will be explained to the local citizens in an easy to understand manner and that investigations to confirm the safety of the plan will be thorough."
According to public announcements, Shikoku Electric's plan is to obtain prior approval and to apply for a variation of the reactor license this year, to carry out fuel fabrication and transport from 2006 and to implement the plan from 2010.
Of the 157 fuel assemblies in the reactor core, up to 40 assemblies, or about a quarter, will be MOX fuel. At first they would load no more than 16 MOX assemblies, then gradually increase the number after that. They say they want to keep the average level of enrichment of the assemblies to no more than 4.1% and the burn-up rate to no more than 45,000 MWd/t.
Shikoku Electric's overseas reprocessing contracts are for a total of 232 tons and its overseas plutonium stocks are 1,600 kg.
On 11th May the local Ehime Farewell to Nuclear Energy Network handed Ehime Prefecture and Shikoku Electric a petition demanding that they cancel the MOX plan.
Current Status of Government's Pluthermal Plan
The government's pluthermal plan announced in 1997 is already in tatters. (Pluthermal was to be implemented in 12-16 reactors by 2010.) However, it appears that behind the recent developments lies the issue of grants to local governments. METI recently decided to provide generous subsidies to local governments that have accepted MOX fuel since 1st April this year. How generous?
(1) For 5 years from the year after a power company formally submits an application for prior approval, the local government would receive an extra 20 million yen per year. This is a particularly dirty approach, not taking as its starting point the local government's acceptance, but rather the power company's application. It is a brazen attempt to overcome any opposition by plying the local government with money.
(2) The basis for subsidies to local governments which host nuclear power plants is the quantity of power produced. Once power production using MOX fuel commences, for the purposes of calculating the subsidy the power produced will be multiplied by a factor of 3.
(3) Where the pluthermal spent fuel is stored on site, the subsidy allowed is twice that allowed for uranium fuel (800,000 yen per ton of spent pluthermal fuel).
Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) main priority at the moment is to regain public confidence, so now is not a good time for it to start talking about its pluthermal plans. A date for TEPCO's introduction of pluthermal wasn't even mentioned in the plan announced last December by the Federation of Electric Power. The issue of recovery of public confidence relates, of course, to the series of scandals surrounding TEPCO.
In a reply to the Fukushima Prefectural Assembly's General Investigations Committee, Governor Eisaku Satoh has already said that the pluthermal plan has been withdrawn and that he is not giving it any thought whatsoever. Again on 23rd March at his regular press conference, he made clear in a reply to a question from a reporter that he doesn't expect to approve the pluthermal plan "in the immediate or long term future".
In regard to reprocessing within Japan, it seems that at least the Atomic Energy Commission will change the current policy of reprocessing all spent fuel held within Japan. It looks like this change will be introduced in the revision of the Long Term Plan for the Development and Use of Nuclear Energy scheduled for 2005. Such a revision would bring the Plan in line with reality.
It seems, however, that they will still bring into operation the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, which is now nearing completion. With uranium tests at Rokkasho expected to begin at any time2, the argument in favor of canceling plans to make the plant operational is building up steam at last. Given the fact that there is no prospect of the Fast Breeder Reactor becoming operational, the pluthermal plan was to be a means of disposing of the plutonium extracted from Japanese spent fuel reprocessed overseas. However, if the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant becomes operational, the plutonium from that too will be disposed of using pluthermal.
However, despite the abovementioned incentives for local governments to implement pluthermal, strong opposition all around the country will still make it hard for utilities to obtain local government approval.
1. The term 'pluthermal' refers to the use of plutonium in the form of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) in 'thermal' - as opposed to 'fast' - reactors.
2. At the time this report was being written there were rumors that uranium tests would be postponed once again.
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