The industry ministry plans to amend legislation to allow for "direct disposal" of spent nuclear fuel, a move away from the nation’s problem-plagued goal of creating a full nuclear fuel cycle, sources said.
Instead of recycling all spent fuel to promote the use of nuclear energy, some of it would be buried deep in the ground without reprocessing, the sources said.
No decision has been made on the location of a final disposal site, a problem that has proved a conundrum in many countries that operate nuclear power plants.
The ministry’s plan comes amid pressure on the government to phase out nuclear energy following last year's disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The government has indicated it would gradually reduce Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy, which would lessen the need to recycle the spent fuel.
To help decide on a new energy policy as early as in September, the government has proposed three options regarding the ratio of nuclear energy in power generation in 2030: zero percent, 15 percent and 20-25 percent.
It says spent nuclear fuel would be directly disposed of under the zero-percent scenario, while both reuse and direct disposal would be considered for the 15-percent and the 20- to 25-percent options.
No matter which option is adopted, the government plans to review its current policy of reusing all spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear reactors.
But Japan's Designated Radioactive Waste Final Disposal Law currently presupposes the reuse of spent fuel and contains no provision on direct disposal.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry concluded the law needs revisions to allow for direct disposal, and plans to submit an amendment bill to the ordinary Diet session that will open early next year.
Nuclear reactors in Japan produced about 1,000 tons of spent fuel annually before the Fukushima disaster.
Under the current Final Disposal Law, the government and the power industry will transfer the spent fuel to a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, where reusable fissile substances will be extracted. The remainder, or "high-level radioactive waste," will be buried.
However, the recycling of spent nuclear fuel presupposes that more nuclear reactors will be built and the use of nuclear fuel will expand. There will no longer be a need to recycle spent fuel if the government decides to scrap all nuclear reactors by 2030.
The necessity of recycling will also diminish if the government decides to gradually reduce nuclear power to 15 percent or to maintain its share at 20-25 percent.
Construction of the reprocessing plant in Rokkasho began in 1993, followed by a succession of failures during trial runs. Full operation of the facility is nowhere in sight, which has put the entire nuclear fuel cycle policy at an impasse.
About 14,000 tons of spent fuel has piled up on the grounds of nuclear power plants across Japan. Storage spaces are expected to reach full capacity within four years at some nuclear plants if they continue to operate.
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