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Japan's Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) announced a decision entitled "Concerning the Basic Position on Japan's Use of Plutonium" on August 5, 2003. The Commission took the view that, "In order to avoid giving rise to concerns, either within Japan or overseas, in regard to our use of plutonium, it is important to establish understanding, both within and outside of Japan, by achieving greater transparency in our use of plutonium." Specifically:

1. A plan regarding the use of plutonium will be made public each year before the plutonium is separated. The plan should include the owner of the plutonium, the quantity owned and the intended use. The intended use should include the amount to be used, the place, the commencement time and an estimate of the duration of the use;

2. In cases where there are concerns that the use plan might be affected by the state of progress of the pluthermal program, or by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited's (JNFL) Reprocessing Facility's operational status, etc, the electric power utilities and JNFL will investigate the steps that need to be taken and, where necessary, reconsider the use plan;

3. Similar steps will be taken in regard to the plutonium separated overseas and the plutonium held by Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC).

A new point in the "Basic Position" is that each year electric power companies will make public specific details of the quantity of plutonium held and the intended use thereof. Since this occurs every year, if plutonium use doesn't proceed, it will be necessary to reconsider and modify the plan. However this reconsideration won't apply to the nuclear fuel cycle policy itself. Operation of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Facility is assumed.

But in fact, because of the need to fix up the problems associated with the shoddy welding scandal, it has been announced that the Rokkasho Reprocessing Facility would not begin operating until 2006, a delay of one year. Consequently, the question of electric power companies announcing their plans to use plutonium from the Rokkasho Reprocessing Facility is a bit premature.

And which power company would be in a position to make such an announcement anyway? Due to scandals involving Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), that company's pluthermal plan is in disarray. Quality control data for fuel for Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) was fabricated and last year that fuel was returned to Britain. According to recent reports KEPCO has entered into a contract with France's COGEMA to make MOX fuel. If they were to ever load this fuel it would presumably be around 2005. Other power companies have not made specific announcements about plans for pluthermal. This is the situation regarding plutonium reprocessed overseas. In the 1997 announcement (that by 2010 pluthermal would be operating in about 16 reactors it was assumed that plutonium that had been reprocessed overseas would be used. Since that announcement the pluthermal program hasn't progressed one iota, but there has been no reconsideration of the program whatsoever. At the end of this year an announcement will presumably be made from this position, because at least reprocessing is continuing at THORP.

Until now the suggestion has been that the destination of the plutonium extracted from the Rokkasho Reprocessing Facility would be the Oma Nuclear Reactor when it is established. This reactor was to have a full MOX core and it was intended that Rokkasho reprocessing plant's plutonium would be consumed there. When the Oma reactor plan was changed from an Advanced Thermal Reactor to an ABWR, one of the reasons given was that the ABWR's full MOX reactor core would consume more plutonium. But the Oma nuclear reactor is in trouble because of lack of progress with purchase of the land. Now they say they will slightly adjust the planned site and forge ahead with construction. But there is no indication of when, if ever, it will start operating.

So even if the AEC says, for the sake of transparency, that plans for the use of plutonium must be made public before reprocessing begins, the current situation is that none of the electric power companies have any specific details that they can announce. One could say that, by requiring the electric power companies to provide details of their plutonium use plans, the AEC is in fact attempting to apply pressure on the companies to move ahead with the pluthermal program . But if the AEC does have this in mind the fact is that it is highly questionable whether this attempt is capable of moving the program forward either.

In conjunction with this a document entitled "Concerning the Nuclear Fuel Cycle" was released. It states: our country lacks resources, so nuclear energy is indispensable; if plutonium is used in fast breeder reactors, uranium can be used 100 times more effectively--plutonium is a purely nationally produced energy resource; the light water reactor fuel cycle is a proven technology used safely in several countries including France, England, Germany and Switzerland; by using the light water reactor fuel cycle, efficiency increases by around 50%.

Under certain conditions, pluthermal is cheaper than oil and coal. "Concerning the Nuclear Fuel Cycle" sums up the Atomic Energy Commission's position in regard to the nuclear fuel cycle policy.

As a result of the 1995 Monju accident, the 1999 JCO criticality accident, the scandals of 2002 in regard to inspections of TEPCO reactors, etc, confidence in nuclear energy has fallen dramatically. A major issue now is to recover that confidence. To that end, they intend to use "Concerning the Nuclear Fuel Cycle" as the basis for discussion for a direct dialogue with the public. However, "In order to turn [the nuclear fuel cycle policy] into a reality, during the course of the policy formation process we would like to adopt a flexible posture reflecting the ideas of a large number of citizens about what type of policy should be adopted".

Here a 3 stage development theory is unfolding, with the final aim being development of the fast breeder reactor. The first stage was the light water reactor. This has been implemented. The second stage is the light water reactor cycle. The third stage is the fast breeder reactor cycle. They recognize that the the prospects for the second and third stages are still unclear. Between the lines we can see their sense of despair that if they stop now, they won't get another chance to develop the fast breeder reactor. However, this line of thinking is in contradiction with the "Long Term Plan for the Development and Use of Nuclear Power (2000)" which refers to the fast breeder reactor as just "one strong option for the use of nuclear energy." They are returning to the former long term plan which had the fast breeder reactor as the goal in the development of nuclear energy. The difference is that where previously the light water reactor cycle was the "link" to the fast breeder reactor cycle, now "the light water reactor cycle" term is invented, but it is not a "link," it's one step. However, the substance is only a proposal based on data that they have compiled to suit their own purposes and is not very persuasive. Both plans are nothing more than the same old posture promoting the nuclear fuel cycle which has been repeated again and again until now.

Were they aware that the day that it was announced was the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, 6 August? One can't tell from the document itself . Functional tests at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Facility using uranium are planned to begin around January, 2004. One of the major criticisms of this is that starting up the plant with no plan for the use of the plutonium will increase the plutonium surplus. The question is, is this really a good thing? Neither the electric power companies, who are the owners of the plutonium, nor the government have provided any reply to this question. It's fair to say that this decision was made because they have no other bright ideas and because they are unable to bite the bullet and change the policy.

(Hideyuki Ban, CNIC co-director)

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