Photo/Illutration Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.’s Rokkasho nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, in 2018 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japan’s nuclear watchdog has effectively endorsed the safety of a controversial nuclear reprocessing plant being built in a village along the Pacific coast in northern Japan.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority on July 29 approved an outline of safety measures for the trouble-plagued nuclear fuel reprocessing plant Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. is building in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture.

The NRA said the outline meets the new safety standards introduced after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The NRA’s decision marks a major step forward in constructing the plant for recovering plutonium from spent nuclear reactor fuel, the core facility for the government’s program to establish a nuclear fuel recycling system.

NRA Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa, however, stressed that the body’s decision does not mean an endorsement of the nuclear fuel recycling policy per se, saying in a news conference that it is a “policy issue” whether there is enough of a rationale for pursuing the policy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration should confront the reality that the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has completely changed the environment surrounding nuclear power generation and make a fundamental review of the government’s nuclear energy policy.

Nuclear fuel recycling involves recovering plutonium from spent nuclear fuel to be reused in reactors. The government has been promoting recycling separated plutonium back into the fuel of reactors since the 1950s under the rationale that Japan, a nation poor in natural resources, needs to make more efficient use of nuclear fuel.

More than half a century on, the share of nuclear power generation in Japan’s overall electricity production is now very small as most of the reactors that were shut down in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns have yet to be restarted.

It is also nearly impossible to find a site for building a new nuclear plant. As aged reactors will be decommissioned one after another in the coming years, the importance of nuclear power generation for Japan’s energy supply will steadily diminish.

Over the long term, Japan needs to phase out nuclear power generation to remove public anxiety about a large-scale accident. 

Nuclear fuel recycling can have no great significance in this new era when Japan has to start shifting away from atomic energy. Many industrial nations have long given up nuclear reprocessing as economically unviable.

Another big problem with reprocessing the spent fuel is that it produces plutonium, a material that can also be used to make nuclear weapons.

Japan has a stockpile of some 46 tons of plutonium, stored both at home and abroad, an amount enough to make 6,000 atomic bombs. It is fueling fears and drawing criticism internationally.

Japan Nuclear Fuel’s plant in Rokkasho is designed to have the capacity of reprocessing 800 tons of spent nuclear fuel annually to recover 7 tons of plutonium.

But the plan to develop a fast neutron reactor that can "consume" plutonium by transforming it into other forms of nuclear waste, the key technology for plutonium consumption, has gone awry with the decision to decommission Japan’s “Monju” prototype sodium-cooled fast-breeder reactor.

There are clearly also limitations to the plan to burn so-called MOX (mixed oxide) fuel, which is usually plutonium blended with natural uranium, in existing nuclear reactors.

The government has promised the international community to reduce the nation’s surplus plutonium. That means the reprocessing operation at the Rokkasho plant will have to be restricted so that the amount of plutonium recovered will not exceed consumption.

It simply does not make sense to spend as much as 14 trillion yen ($134.33 billion) on building the plant to recover a small amount of plutonium.

Given that this huge cost will be passed onto consumers through higher electricity bills, it is impossible to win broad public support for the project.

If the government decides to pull the plug on the fuel recycling program, it will have to face tough policy challenges it has long avoided tackling, such as how to dispose of spent fuel. But the nation cannot make the inevitable leap into the new age of energy if it continues spending huge amounts on nuclear power generation, which is beset by so many problems.

There is a growing global trend toward renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. This is the time for the government to make a radical shift in its energy policy.

 --The Asahi Shimbun, July 30