The tests operations approved Thursday at Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.'s nuclear fuel-reprocessing plant in Rokkashomura, Aomori Prefecture, are a giant step toward securing a stable supply of energy for the country, but there are many hurdles still to be overcome. For one thing, the cost of running the nuclear fuel-reprocessing plant remains enormous. In addition, a way has to be found to reduce the nation's stocks of dangerous plutonium.
With debate heating up over whether nuclear fuel reprocessing should be carried out, Rokkashomura residents view the forthcoming tests with a mixture of expectation and anxiety.
Full-scale test operations at the facility will use real radioactive waste. The tests are crucial for Japan's nuclear power policy, since any failure would mean the plant could not open in 2006 as scheduled.
With a lack of conventional energy resources, Japan has sought to establish a nuclear fuel cycle. This would involve reprocessing plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel to produce fresh nuclear fuel.
After a series of problems, the plan is on the brink of falling apart, however.
The Monju fast-breeder reactor, which would have consumed a large amount of plutonium, was shut down after a leak of sodium coolant occurred in 1995.
Four years later, the implementation of the pluthermal plan, under which plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel (MOX) was to be used in conventional nuclear reactors, was suspended when British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. was found to have falsified data on MOX fuel. Implementation of the plan was subsequently postponed to 2007.
As a result, stocks of spent nuclear fuel at nuclear power plants have been increasing.
Meanwhile, the lifetime cost of running and later decommissioning the fuel reprocessing plant was revealed to be about 19 trillion yen, giving fresh ammunition to those pressing the government to abandon reprocessing.
Even government officials are divided over whether the project should be given the green light.
A senior official of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry said that, under the current circumstances, a review of the nuclear fuel cycle would be inevitable if terrorists attacked the reprocessing plant or if there was an accident.
After more than 400 technical problems, including a pipe leak, other countries are watching to see whether the test will succeed.
On the other hand, while the reprocessing plant involves some risk, it could bring investment and jobs to Rokkashomura.
The prefectural government has to conclude a safety agreement with Japan Nuclear Fuel before the test begins. As a precondition for concluding the agreement, Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura plans to seek assurance from the central government that it will not alter existing plans for the nuclear fuel cycle. Mimura plans to make his appeal after the cabinet reshuffle that is expected to follow the July 11 election.
The experience of the Mutsu Ogawara Kaihatsu development project taught prefectural politicians to be wary of changes of heart in Tokyo.
To be funded by national and local governments, as well as the private sector, the 5,200-hectare development project was to create a massive new industrial park. The 1965 project has languished following prolonged wrangling, however.
Against this backdrop, the prefecture accepted the construction of the nuclear fuel reprocessing facility. The prefectural government is expected to rake in about 11.7 billion yen in fiscal 2004 in nuclear fuel taxes from the reprocessing plant and other related facilities. That is about 10 percent of the prefectural government's tax revenues.
The local business sector hopes the plant will go into operation as early as possible since its operations are expected to create business opportunities.
But many citizens in the prefecture are concerned about the nuclearization of northern Honshu.
A prefectural assembly member said he could not accept the government's policy of imposing unwanted facilities on depopulated areas. But Yosaku Fuji, the head of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, said that in the long run, the reprocessing plant would contribute to the nation's limited resources. The plant can also reprocess spent nuclear fuel produced by nuclear power plants, stocks of which have been accumulating in the absence of any reprocessing plant.
As of the end of March, 11,110 tons of spent nuclear fuel was stored at 52 nuclear power plants across the country. Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Kansai Electric Power Co. have already transported 888 tons of such fuel to the Rokkashomura plant.
If the nuclear fuel cycle is suspended, the spent nuclear fuel will have to be moved out of the plant in line with a memorandum drawn up by Rokkashomura and Japan Nuclear Fuel.
The storage facilities at TEPCO's Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant and other facilities that supply electricity to the metropolitan area will be full in two years if they are not allowed to transport spent nuclear fuel to other locations.
That would force TEPCO to suspend operation of its nuclear power plants.
But the estimated 19 trillion yen cost of the reprocessing plant over its expected 40 years of operation and the additional 40 years it will take to decommission it remains a huge problem. The general energy research council, an advisory panel to the METI minister, is studying ways to help shoulder such a cost, which equates to about 105 yen per household, per month.
Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun