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2011年7月18日 (月)


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 13
EDITORIAL/ Seeking a society without nuclear power generation: Japan should stop nuclear fuel cycle policy

This is the third of a five-part editorial series proposing ways for Japan to achieve a society that does not depend on nuclear power generation for its energy supply.

* * *

Since Japan's first commercial nuclear power plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, started commercial operations in 1966, the country has been producing and accumulating large quantities of spent nuclear fuel.

From now on, even if Japan goes ahead with a policy to break with nuclear power generation, as long as there are operating nuclear power plants, it will continue to produce spent nuclear fuel, which is high-level radioactive waste.

How should it be disposed of?

The policy to recycle spent nuclear fuel greatly affects the disposal of nuclear waste.

It is the system to extract plutonium by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and use it again as fuel in fast-breeder reactors (FBR).

However, prospects for the operations of two facilities that are pivotal in the nuclear fuel cycle remain uncertain despite the fact that a huge amount of money has been spent on them.

The Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture was originally scheduled to start operations in 1997 but is still in a test-run stage.

Because of repeated troubles in the development process, it had to be stopped numerous times.

Monju, a prototype FBR in Fukui Prefecture, has been practically shut down since a sodium leak in 1995.

Because reprocessing is making no progress, in Rokkasho, tanks to hold spent fuel sent there from nuclear power plants across Japan are approaching capacity.

Because of this, spent fuel is being kept in pools at nuclear power plants across the nation and already, 70 percent of total capacity is being used.

Among Japan's nuclear energy policies, the nuclear fuel cycle has presented problems particularly from the standpoint of economic efficiency and nuclear nonproliferation.

In the discussions carried out when the current outline on nuclear energy policies was decided in 2005, a trial calculation showed that recycling spent nuclear fuel is more costly than burying spent fuel without processing it.

Still, the government stuck to the policy on the grounds that if it is changed, past investments would be wasted and new research would be needed.

Furthermore, it was argued that it would undermine trust with local communities that host plants related to the policy.

However, if Japan aims to abolish nuclear power plants, the nuclear fuel cycle plan to put FBRs to practical use by around 2050 would become meaningless.

There is no choice but to dump the policy.

In addition to extraction of plutonium, the Rokkasho reprocessing plant is designed to reduce the quantities of spent nuclear fuel.

But Japan must change the policy based on the assumption that the number of nuclear reactors will decrease and the era of the fast-breeder reactor will never arrive.

If Japan stops the use of plutonium, it would provide the country with a card to strengthen its nuclear nonproliferation diplomacy.

Electric power companies have saved more than 2.4 trillion yen (about $30 billion) for reprocessing.

Even though it has been shut down, maintenance of Monju costs 50 million yen a day.

Those moneys can be used for other purposes.

By changing the nuclear fuel cycle plan that the government has been advancing as a national policy, various problems are expected to arise, such as objections by local communities that have accepted related facilities.

But ways to resolve them must be sought.

However, even if the nuclear fuel cycle policy is abandoned, it does not change the fact that there is no place to dispose of radioactive waste.

Japan and many other countries that have nuclear power plants have come up with plans to store such "nuclear garbage" deep under the ground and manage it away from human society.

But countries in northern Europe are the only ones that were able to decide where to bury such waste.

We have been using electricity generated by nuclear energy.
Thus, the disposal of nuclear waste is a task that our generation should tackle responsibly.

In 1995, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency also said the principle that the disposal of nuclear waste is the responsibility of the current generation.

We must not leave the task to the next generation.

At least, we must pave the way to dispose of the waste domestically.

Instead of making nuclear power plants, Japan should lead the world by demonstrating passion for the disposal of nuclear waste.

It is also necessary to train nuclear energy engineers for that purpose.


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