To build a safe society that does not rely on nuclear power, it is necessary for the government not only to lower the ratio of nuclear power to overall electricity generation but also to show clearly that Japan will withdraw from the “nuclear fuel cycle” program.
The Energy and Environmental Council comprising related Cabinet members is set to decide the direction of Japan’s future energy policy at the end of August. As the ratio of dependence on nuclear energy in 2030, it is studying three scenarios of zero percent, 15 percent and 20 to 25 percent.
The council will also decide disposal methods for spent nuclear fuel at the same time. Storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel are problems that stand in the way even when nuclear power plants are closed down. Japan is now at a major crossroads.
The nuclear fuel cycle program, in which all spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed to extract plutonium and use it as fuel, has been the core of Japanese nuclear power policy.
The council presented the view that if Japan were to completely abolish nuclear power by adopting the “zero percent” case, it should not reprocess the spent nuclear fuel but bury it underground. In the remaining two cases, the methods of burying it and reprocessing it are both possible, according to the council. However, it should not make such half-baked conclusions but clearly shift gears from reprocessing it to burying it.
From now, it is unlikely that Japan would build more nuclear power plants, meaning consumption of uranium fuel will drop. Under such circumstances, it is unreasonable to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and use relatively expensive plutonium.
If Japan aims at massive use of plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, even though it does not pay, it may prompt other countries to follow its example and reprocess spent nuclear fuel. If that happens, it would have a negative impact on global efforts toward nuclear nonproliferation.
That is all the more why we believe it would be wiser not to reprocess spent nuclear fuel but to bury it underground after keeping it in temporary storage facilities for several decades.
If we choose to bury it, however, spent nuclear fuel, which is supposedly a “valuable resource,” will suddenly become “worthless garbage.” As a result, the method, in which a private company handles spent nuclear fuel as a business, will hit a wall.
To avoid that, it is indispensable for the government to come to the fore and present a mid- to long-term strategy.
The government needs to advance the construction of temporary storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel, carry out research and development for burying it and find sites for the final disposal. It also needs to consider the nationalization of those projects. In Europe as well as the United States, instead of leaving the handling of spent nuclear fuel in the hands of private companies, governments are taking the initiative.
Many difficult problems need to be resolved, such as providing alternative pump-priming measures to Aomori Prefecture, which hosts nuclear fuel cycle facilities, and finding new businesses for Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., which has been reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. They are all serious problems that weigh heavily and can only be shouldered by the government as Japan follows the path to a nuclear-free country.
--The Asahi Shimbun, July 20
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