Japan’s Nuclear Energy Future
By: Yukari Sekiguchi
Four years after the Fukushima accident, the Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture was restarted on August 11, 2015. Additionally, the No. 3 reactor at the Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture is likely to restart next year. Despite these developments, Japanese citizens are skeptical about the future of Japan’s energy policy. This skepticism can be attributed to a perceived absence of a strong leadership working to solve existing nuclear energy problems.
The “closed fuel cycle” is the process of recycling nuclear waste into new fuel through reprocessing. Since the advent of nuclear power in Japan, successive Japanese administrations have maintained plans to pursue a closed nuclear fuel cycle. Recycling spent fuel is essential to maximizing Japanese energy security because the nation relies almost entirely on imported uranium for its reactors. Fast-breeder reactors (FBRs) are the core of the fuel cycle in Japan. FBRs utilize MOX fuel (plutonium-uranium mixed oxide), which is reused plutonium from spent fuel. FBRs are intended to resolve the country’s excess plutonium stockpiles. However, nuclear power in Japan is facing many issues moving forward.
Monju, a prototype FBR, has numerous safety concerns. On November 13, 2015, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority recommended that the Japanese government organization responsible for operating Monju be replaced by another entity for safety management operations. Although the recommendation is nonbinding, the Japanese government has to find a new entity within about six months.
Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant’s (RRP) cost of construction has increased threefold since its application for a business license. RRP was expected to become operational by October 2013, yet due to successive technical mishaps and a new safety standard its opening has been delayed. If brought online, RRP would have a maximum capacity of approximately four tons of plutonium annually. As of July 2015, the Japanese Cabinet Office reported that Japan owns roughly 47.8 tons of plutonium.
In July 2015, the Japanese government started to review its nuclear fuel cycle policy. Although a closed fuel cycle is the national policy, RRP is operated by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL), which is owned by 10 private Japanese companies. Japan is also set to liberalize its retail energy market next April in order to expand choices for consumers and create business opportunities. When Japan liberalizes its electricity market, it will become difficult for the owners of JNFL to stay competitive. The Japanese government might consider purchasing JNFL to keep the nuclear industry afloat, including securing ¥12.6 trillion yen for reprocessing projects.
Reprocessing requires major maintenance costs and also presents a proliferation problem. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated during the Nuclear Security Summit, Japan should possess no plutonium reserves without specified purposes.