AEC chairman: major change needed in reprocessing nuclear fuel

June 29, 2012


Japan may be facing the possibility of not being able to reprocess all of the spent nuclear fuel from its nuclear reactors, according to Shunsuke Kondo, chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.

"If there is a move toward reducing dependency on nuclear energy, more flexible policy will be required so that would mean simultaneously burying spent fuel (in addition to reprocessing)," Kondo said in an exclusive interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

Burying some of the spent nuclear fuel would mark a major shift in nuclear energy policy for Japan, which until now had set a course of reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel.

After further discussions within the Atomic Energy Commission, the energy and environment council, made up of Cabinet ministers, will decide on new nuclear energy policy this summer.

Kondo was a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tokyo before becoming chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in 2004. He was also asked about the accident last year at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant as well as the future of Japan's nuclear energy policy.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Question: What are your thoughts now that the safety myth of nuclear plants has collapsed?

Kondo: There is nothing more eloquent than the facts.

3/11 is everything, and what is happening in Fukushima is the cold, hard reality.

While I personally was very persistent about the need for safety measures, I am now reflecting deeply on not being able to completely follow through as an expert.

Our mission now is to thoroughly implement measures to decontaminate the radiation fallout and to decommission the reactors.

Moreover, there are still moves in the world to utilize nuclear energy even after the Fukushima nuclear accident. There should never be another accident like the one in Fukushima. It will be very important to learn lessons from that accident.

Q: What did you think had to be done after you learned that a severe accident had occurred?

A: I was involved in all processes related to creating measures to deal with a severe accident at nuclear plants in Japan. Once a severe accident occurs, there are only limited measures available to contain the spread of the accident.

I instinctively felt that pressure within the reactor cores had to be reduced, and venting and pumping in of water had to be implemented. In the end, the only alternative would be to pour in seawater.

When I received a phone call from an official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), I said that was the only thing to do.

Q: Workers at the No. 1 reactor followed the operation manual for the isolation condensers used to cool reactor cores between the time the quake struck and the tsunami hit and did not try to rapidly cool the core.

A: The operations of the manual are based on the thinking of protecting assets by not shortening the life of the equipment through a sudden reduction of temperature. However, during emergencies concern should not be given toward such matters, and the temperature within the core should have been reduced. Every effort should have been made to continuously cool it quickly.

Q: Explosions could not be averted.

A: I thought there was a need to consult with the Self-Defense Forces about using explosives to open a hole in the roof and wall of the No. 3 reactor building in order to release hydrogen.

However, I never made that suggestion after I learned that Tokyo Electric Power Co. was considering opening holes through the spraying of water. It is a mystery why that was never carried out. If the No. 3 reactor did not explode, the No. 4 reactor might also not have exploded.

Q: Why did it take so long to vent the containment vessels?

A: In the United States, tools are provided to pry open vent valves in case all electric sources are lost. In Japan, while vents were attached, there was insufficient operational training and analysis about the circumstances in which the vents would have to be used.

Moreover, the isolation condenser of the No. 1 reactor was rarely operated. I was told that training had been conducted at the Tsuruga No. 1 reactor in Fukui Prefecture, which has a similar type of isolation condenser.

Q: Were not the assumptions about an accident and training extremely meager?

A: Japan was lax in ironing out the details of dealing with a severe accident. The fundamental point among people who think about responding to accidents is to consider that even worse things will occur when something bad happens. However, I have my doubts about how thoroughly such thinking was pursued by those working on-site.

There are two ways of thinking about how to respond to accidents in the world. One way of thinking is that an accident will occur no matter what kinds of measures are implemented. The other is that an accident will not occur if a highly dependable system is constructed.

The anti-terrorist measures taken for nuclear plants in the United States following 9/11 were based on the former way of thinking.

While Japan was informed by the United States about how it was handling measures, the information stopped at the head of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency as well as the department handling nuclear security. The information was not shared with those in the safety department and was not used in the measures thought up.

Q: If the information had been utilized, would that have changed the response to the accident?

A: For example, the United States changed the setting of the valves of the isolation condensers so they would not shut. However, Japan kept the setting as before, so the valves shut during the accident. Other measures were delayed because workers were not aware the valves had shut and thought they were operating as normal. That difference itself would have had a large effect.

Q: The various investigations into the accident have been unable to explain the manner in which the accident progressed and expanded.

A: A precondition for learning all the lessons from the accident is understanding what happened through a detailed re-enactment of how the accident progressed. Unless that is done, it cannot be said that safety measures were implemented based on what happened during the accident.

However, none of the investigative commissions now in place have conducted a re-enactment. That should be conducted by the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, which is an incorporated administrative agency tasked with inspecting nuclear plants.

With even the United States and France already conducting research, it would be an embarrassment for Japan as a nation unless it carried out the task and left the lessons to history. I am trying to coordinate a joint research project with the United States by lobbying the relevant agencies.

Q: METI has proposed three alternatives for the ratio of electricity generated through nuclear energy in 2030--0 percent, 15 percent and 20 to 25 percent.

A: In response, the Atomic Energy Commission recently presented its recommendations for nuclear fuel recycling policy for 2030.

The central government's energy and environment council also organized its thinking about how to construct energy policy and presented a picture of what would have to be done if the number of nuclear plants is reduced.

While the Atomic Energy Commission once created nuclear energy policy, it has now become nothing more than a think tank.

Q: A proposal was made involving three alternatives for dealing with spent nuclear fuel. One would be a continuation of the current policy of reprocessing all spent fuel, while the second alternative was burying all the spent fuel. The third choice was a combination of the first two alternatives.

A: While it might be possible to reprocess all spent fuel if the ratio of electricity generated through nuclear energy was maintained at a high level after 2030, thinking realistically, if there is a move toward reducing dependency on nuclear energy, more flexible policy will be required so that would mean simultaneously burying spent fuel in the future along with reprocessing.

Q: During the process of discussing nuclear fuel recycling policy, questions were raised about a closed-door study group meeting held with officials of electric power companies.

A: The biggest problem is the failure to publicize the fact that such a study group meeting would be held. While matters were left up to the secretariat, there were not even minutes of the meeting. A code of conduct should have been decided on beforehand. While it was a study group meeting to compile documents for the meeting, a comprehensive evaluation plan for the alternatives was also distributed. I apologize for that.

Q: Electric power companies are calling for a continuation of policy because if the central government decides to abandon the course of reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel, the reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture will also not be able to maintain operations.

A: A nation does not enter into discussions about which blast furnaces in the private-sector steel industry should survive. Since reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel is, in the end, something handled by the private sector, the private sector should itself decide what it wants to do.

Q: Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel extracts plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons. It is also an issue that is related to the creation of an international joint management structure for spent nuclear fuel.

A: Certainly, there is an element in the reprocessing issue of international contributions as well as nuclear nonproliferation. Time will also be required to collect on the investments made. It is normally not a business that a private-sector company would become involved in. Debate is now being conducted on reforming the electric power industry to spread liberalization. Amid such a trend, it might be appropriate to simultaneously hold discussions on a proposal to have the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, another incorporated administrative agency, handle reprocessing of fuel and processing of radioactive waste, with the central government having ultimate control over the process.

Q: Hasn't Japan's nuclear energy policy been excessively rigid and vulnerable?

A: In a sense, that is true because it exists through a relationship among a very limited number of operators and local communities.

Japan's structure calls for supplying one-third of its total electricity through 50 nuclear plants. Moreover, 50 percent of those plants are located in the three prefectures of Fukui, Fukushima and Niigata.

Because nuclear plants were constructed in very limited areas, Japan's nuclear energy policy was affected by the wishes of the local communities. Moreover, there was also a structure of having to rely on the reprocessing of all spent nuclear fuel and placing the fate of that structure totally on Aomori.

Q: The decision has been made to resume operations at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. Although the public still has concerns, do the residents of the nuclear energy village understand such concerns?

A: It is not as though I do not feel a certain dullness in sensitivity.

Japan is not very good at thoroughly discussing what should be done when such an accident occurs and organizing ideas.

While even France, which is a strong proponent of nuclear energy, has become worried about the 3/11 accident, the handling of the issue by those in Japan has been weaker.

I feel there is a lack of a sense of crisis that not only the host communities of nuclear plants but the areas consuming the electricity must understand that measures should be implemented based on a reflection of what the accident was all about.

Q: Will Japan really move in the direction of reducing dependency on nuclear energy as set forth by the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda?

A: What is important right now is to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the safety of nuclear plants and ensure it is dependable. A decision on whether to move away from nuclear energy should be made from the standpoint of a stable supply of energy as a medium- to long-term policy objective.

Q: Although the Atomic Energy Commission has promoted nuclear energy for more than 50 years, hasn't its role come to an end?

A: While its original role was to promote research and development of nuclear plants, after nuclear energy became a major source through an increase in the number of plants, that significance became weaker.

In the future, the main tasks will be to coordinate policy between METI and the science ministry as well as play a watchdog role over the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

But, I do not feel the role of nuclear energy has ended. We will have to move to the next stage after deciding on the future direction of policy.

(The interview was conducted by senior staff writers Hisashi Hattori and Keiji Takeuchi.)

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Shunsuke Kondo (Photo by Hiroki Nishida)

Shunsuke Kondo (Photo by Hiroki Nishida)

  • Shunsuke Kondo (Photo by Hiroki Nishida)

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