Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission proposes to continue reprocessing plutonium, using MOX fuel, and fast breeder reactor technology

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Japan has essentially made no further progress in management and disposal plans for spent nuclear fuel from its nuclear power plants.  Japan has long held a stubborn commitment to the development of a self-sufficient plutonium-based nuclear fuel cycle has generated significant controversy domestically, regionally, and globally.

The first of 3 proposals made by a Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission working group calls for proceeding with the current project of reprocessing plutonium from spent nuclear fuel into uranium-plutonium mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel. The proposal is based on the theory that the fuel could be used for a fast-breeder nuclear reactor once it’s in practical use.

The second proposal calls for Japan to give up all fast-breeder reactor research and fuel recycling, and to bury all fuel deeply underground.

The third proposal calls for keeping fuel in storage for the time being, and to decide within 20 years whether to use it in a fast-breeder reactor or to dispose of it for good.

Although Japan had initially declared it would reduce dependence on nuclear energy for the national power supply, the Noda administration has constantly undermined and backtracked on those promises.  Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, rejected a referendum to put the issue of nuclear power on the ballot, turning down a petition filed by a citizens advocacy group, stating that it would be unnecessary as the country already planned to phase out nuclear power.

However, Japan’s failed nuclear safety agency NISA, has approved the stress tests performed on the Oi reactors operated by the Kansai Electric Power Company.  The official said that the plant will be safe even if it’s hit by earthquakes and tsunami as large as the ones that crippled the Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March last year.

By concluding KEPCO’s earthquake-resistance safety projection was “appropriate,” the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has completed its technical evaluation concerning the safety of the two reactors at the plant in Oi, Fukui Prefecture, according to the officials.

The central government has now decided that it should be the one that needs to make a final decision on restarting the reactors, after winning consent from local communities.  Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three ministers in charge of nuclear policies will make a final confirmation of the reactors’ safety. Following this, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano will visit Fukui Prefecture as early as next month to brief local governments on the central government’s stance and ask their opinions on resuming the reactors. The central government will then make a final decision on reactivation, the officials said.

The plutonium Japan has stockpiled for decades was supposed to be a smart energy source for the resource-poor nation.  Japan has more plutonium on its hands than any other non-weapons state, according to a 2011 report.  As of 2009, Japan had the third largest volume of Plutonium in spent fuel in the world, only lagging behind the United States and France.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) decided in 1966 on the development of a fast-breeder reactor. The Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC), the predecessor of the JAEA, began preparations around 1968, and began construction in 1985. The reactor reached criticality, or intermittent nuclear fission reaction, in 1994.

Even before Fukushima, the work to close the fuel cycle with fast breeder technologies had encountered many setbacks, beginning with Monju.

Japan’s Monju fast breeder reactor was supposed to be a “dream reactor,” says the program’s director-general Satoru Kondo. It was supposed to be able to power Japan for 100 to 200 years. However, the dream has taken decades to pursue, the Monju reactor has only generated elecrticity for one hour.  Part of the Monju’s fuel is uranium, which after it’s burned, produces high-grade plutonium that can easily be used to make nuclear weapons. If various countries go on to develop fast-breeder reactors in the name of civil use, each of those countries will be stocking up on plutonium that could be used for weapons.

In December 1995, a test run of the reactor was halted after a sodium leak in the secondary cooling system. The leaked sodium reacted with the oxygen and moisture in the air causing a fire and filling the secondary coolant piping room with fumes.

The reactor was restarted in May 2010 for the first time in over 14 years, but only a few months later, in August, there was another accident. A 3.3-ton fuel-loading device jammed in the reactor vessel, leaving the plant inoperative.

Neighboring countries, some of whom were previously subjected to Japanese militarism, are uneasy with the potential nuclear weapon capability implied by Japan’s excess plutonium and advanced fuel cycle technology.

Despite more than 40 years of research costing more than one trillion yen ($12.3 billion) fast breeder reactors like Monju have continued to be uneconomical given the current low costs of fresh fuel.  In theory, Monju has the capacity to produce 1.2 times the fuel that it consumes, but the increasingly predominant view is that this is not possible; meaning Monju will not lead to effective reuse of nuclear fuel as it was once believed.

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