On September 29th the Nuclear Policy Planning Council (Planning Council) submitted its final draft of the Nuclear Energy Policy Outline (Policy Outline) to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). AEC endorsed the Policy Outline on October 11th and, three days later, on the 14th it was authorized by a Cabinet decision, which stated, "The Policy Outline will be respected as the basic direction of nuclear energy policy, and research into and development and utilization of nuclear energy will be promoted."
As stated in NIT 108, in the past the equivalent document was referred to as the Long-term Program for Research, Development, and Utilization of Nuclear Energy. The name change stems from a reorganization of government agencies. In 2001, the agency responsible for the promotion of nuclear energy, the Science and Technology Agency (STA), was dissolved. Its responsibilities were divided between the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). Previously the Minister in charge of STA was also the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. However, after the reorganization, AEC was no longer chaired by a government minister. Consequently, it was no longer possible for the AEC to draw up government programs in its own right and the name had to be changed. The contents of the Policy Outline indicate the "basic thinking". They fulfill the role of nuclear policy guidelines for the various government agencies.
This is a very big change, because it means that nuclear energy has ceased to be the center of energy policy. As explained by METI in the course of the Planning Council's deliberations, this means that we have changed from an era of "renewable energy or nuclear energy" to an era of "renewable energy and nuclear energy".
The fact that for the first time a proponent of a phase-out of nuclear energy was included on a government panel established to consider nuclear energy policy is another sign of the changing times.
Basically unchanged from past policy
However, the Policy Outline continues the nuclear fuel cycle policy of the past. I was totally opposed to this, so I submitted a minority opinion. I had submitted written comments to almost all of the meetings, so my 'minority opinion' was basically a summary of those comments. Two members of the Planning Council submitted minority opinions. This might be common practice overseas, but it was strongly opposed within the Planning Council. Those opposed took the view that it was unnecessary to append minority opinions to the report for reasons such as the following: the members' written and oral comments are publicly available; there was sufficient discussion within the Planning Council; public comments were called for on two occasions; the Policy Outline is the outcome of this process. In the end the chairman decided that the minority opinions would be appended to the Policy Council's draft report.
I submitted a minority opinion, because the draft Policy Outline contained things with which I was fundamentally unable to agree. One problem was the inclusion of numerical goals for nuclear power production, development of the fast breeder reactor (FBR), and so on. The goal for nuclear power production was set at 30%-40% or more of total electric power. This level is to be maintained beyond 2030. It was thus accepted that the operating life of nuclear reactors will be extended to 60 years. Indeed, implementation of the new nuclear energy policy is premised on such extensions. Furthermore, in order to increase output, the Policy Outline endorses power uprates and extending the time between periodic inspections to 18 months or more. However, these measures will increase the risk of nuclear accidents.
I was also unable to agree with including a date of 2050 for the realization of FBR. There was almost no discussion of this point. The government provided estimates of the plutonium doubling time1 for a variety of reactor designs. The estimates ranged from 40 years to 200 years. Essentially, what this means is that FBR will never become a reality. Nevertheless, the "basic thinking" was declared to be that FBR would be realized by 2050. This date was arrived at by considering the desired nuclear power production outcome and calculating from that when FBR would need to be available. However, it appeared to this writer that this is nothing but an illusion created to accommodate the vested interests of the nuclear industry.
Another problem was the fact that the Policy Outline continues the past nuclear fuel cycle policy. This was the biggest issue addressed by the Planning Council. There was strong resistance within the nuclear industry to attempting an overall policy assessment which included the direct disposal (once through) option. The fact that an overall policy assessment approach was adopted is, in my view, to be commended. However, I was acutely conscious of bias in each item for assessment. This bias reflected a firm intention to continue with the existing nuclear fuel cycle policy. No doubt there was strong pressure from the nuclear industry.
The influence wielded on nuclear policy by local regions dependent on the nuclear industry and keen to promote regional development was very visible. I understand that direct subsidies to local governments are not provided to promote nuclear development overseas. In Japan, however, there is a system whereby the central government provides subsidies to local governments which accept nuclear facilities. This makes these local governments economically dependent on nuclear facilities. The governor of Aomori Prefecture stated that if a decision is made to cancel the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant he will refuse to accept spent fuel for storage. This had a big impact on the Planning Council's deliberations.
It became the basis for a spurious desktop calculation, which purported to show that the cost of changing the existing reprocessing policy would be 23 trillion yen over the next 20 years. In the course of the debate, it became clear that the government and the power companies are totally incapable of extracting themselves from Aomori.
The process did not allow the discussion to deviate from the assumption that the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant would reprocess 800 tons of spent fuel per year for 40 years. The possibility that it might only reprocess half that amount was beyond the terms of the analysis. However, one can predict that such an eventuality would cause great problems further down the track. It is my view that the correct choice is to withdraw from reprocessing now, before such problems arise.
Japan's nuclear energy policy future
A manufacturers' representative on the Planning Council expressed great satisfaction that new nuclear power plants would be built to extend nuclear power production beyond 2030. That's not surprising given that the nuclear manufacturing rush has passed, their sales are in free fall and it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to maintain a skilled workforce.
However, the new plant priorities of power companies are shifting from compliance with government policy to economics. Electric power demand is not growing, so even if their basic preference is for new construction, things probably won't pan out that way. In sum, the Nuclear Energy Policy Outline sounds more like a fanfare for a nuclear industry in decline than a realistic policy.
For me, it represents the end of a tension-filled 16 months. Attending 33 meetings of the New Nuclear Policy Planning Council was an exhausting experience. I had to keep my wits about me the whole time. But it was a great learning experience and I fully intend to make the most of the lessons learnt in my future campaign work.