Britain, France seek Japan's promise to accept nuclear waste

September 13, 2012


With Japan moving to phase out nuclear energy, Britain, France and Aomori Prefecture are trying to ensure they will not be stuck with high-level radioactive waste from a fuel reprocessing program.

Britain and France reprocess spent nuclear fuel on contract from nuclear power plants in Japan, with the resulting waste stored at a facility in Aomori Prefecture.

However, the Noda administration is drafting a new energy policy to steer the nation toward zero nuclear power. And some officials in Aomori Prefecture, concerned over the drastic change, have indicated their refusal to accept additional nuclear waste.

David Warren, the British ambassador to Japan, visited Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura at the Prime Minister's Official Residence in Tokyo on Sept. 11 and asked him to make good on Japan’s promise to pick up the radioactive waste.

Christian Masset, the French ambassador to Japan, also plans to soon file an official request with Fujimura on accepting the waste.

Commissioned by Japan, Britain and France reprocess spent fuel from Japanese nuclear plants, extract plutonium and process it into mixed-oxide fuel, which is then shipped for use by utilities in Japan.

Japan also accepts the high-level radioactive waste. There are plans to transport 28 nuclear waste cylinders from Britain in October and later to a storage facility in Aomori Prefecture.

Japan is an important buyer of mixed-oxide fuel for Britain and France, and Tokyo’s departure from nuclear energy would not only deal a heavy blow to the European businesses but it could also obligate the two nations to temporarily store the radioactive waste themselves.

The reprocessing is part of Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle policy. If Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda decides to do away with nuclear energy, it would eliminate the need to reuse spent nuclear fuel.

But the Noda administration's draft for a new energy policy has postponed the decision on reviewing the nuclear fuel cycle policy. Such a review has been strongly opposed by local communities in Aomori Prefecture, where a reprocessing plant for the reuse of nuclear fuel is under construction in Rokkasho.

The draft only states that a consortium will be created for relevant local governments, the central government and major power-consuming regions to discuss the nuclear fuel cycle policy.

"We will proceed with discussions while continuing reprocessing operations in line with the existing policy," the draft said.

In light of Aomori Prefecture’s fears that it could be stuck with spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste, the draft also stated: "We will abide strictly by the promise not to turn (Aomori Prefecture) into a final disposal site (for spent nuclear fuel)."

The draft said the Monju prototype fast breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, will be "converted into a research reactor, where programs of limited terms will be drafted, implemented and terminated after their achievements have been confirmed."

That indicates that Monju will be demoted to a research reactor to seek ways to reduce the amount of radioactive waste, and that it will be decommissioned following a limited operation period.

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