Rokkasho plant a bad idea The Asahi Shimbun Japan

EDITORIAL: Resuming tests at Rokkasho plant a bad idea

The Asahi Shimbun Japan 11 Jan 2013

A test-run is due to resume in mid-January at the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture.

In late December, Aomori Governor Shingo Mimura gave a nod to safety measures at the prefecture’s nuclear facilities. This effectively became a go-ahead signal for Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. to restart the trial operation.

This is not right.

The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 plant led to the current government policy to review the nuclear fuel cycle project of reprocessing and extracting used plutonium for recycling.

A report from the Japan Atomic Energy Commission estimates the costs of used fuel recycling at double the costs of the “direct disposal” method of burying unreprocessed fuel underground.

Resuming the Rokkasho test-run, just when serious debates on nuclear fuel reprocessing are about to begin on the basis of various available data, can only spell one purpose: to establish an operational “track record” to justify the continuation of the fuel recycling project.

The plant began operating on a trial basis in March 2006, but this was suspended in 2008 when problems developed in the process of mixing highly radioactive waste fluid with molten glass in a high-temperature melting furnace for vitrification. Shortly before operations were to resume in March 2011, the Fukushima meltdowns occurred, and the Rokkasho plant has remained idle since.

The plant has a vehicle-mounted power generator, which an Aomori Prefecture investigation committee commended as an effective backup for power outages. In its report, the committee also stressed this plant’s differences from nuclear power generation plants, noting, “Unlike at nuclear power generation plants, chemical processes at this fuel reprocessing plant are conducted under ordinary temperature and normal pressure.”

The committee is correct on this point. And we are also aware that the resumption of operations at the plant was requested by the local community.

However, a review of the entire nuclear energy industry and the debunking of the “myth of safety and low running costs” are what the Fukushima disaster has made mandatory.

We have repeatedly suggested a road map for weaning our society off nuclear power generation. We applaud the government’s legal amendment bill that stipulates 40 years as the life expectancy of nuclear reactors.

If our country continues to pursue the “no nuke” route, the whole nuclear fuel cycle will eventually collapse.

Even if a certain degree of reliance on nuclear power generation is to be maintained, the relevance of the used fuel recycling project is already in serious doubt. As for the development of fast-breeder reactors, which is the ultimate purpose of keeping up the nuclear fuel cycle, the prototype Monju has remained virtually idle despite the huge costs spent on it so far. Its commercialization is now nothing more than a pipe dream.

We are having trouble understanding the government’s position on the Rokkasho plant. The issue at hand goes to the very core of the nation’s nuclear energy policy, and yet Yukio Edano, minister of economy, trade and industry, noted to the effect that the government is no longer in a position to approve or disapprove the resumption of trial operations.

Japan Nuclear Fuel intends to resume the construction of a factory where mixed oxide (MOX) plutonium fuel will be manufactured after reprocessing.

The decision is premature, and the operator must not be allowed to call all the shots.

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