On October 7-10, Carnegie experts visited Japan for talks with government officials and industry leaders. They held a private session with the Japanese Atomic Industrial Forum on October 7 and toured the new nuclear fuel facilities in Rokkasho on October 8.

In 2006, Japanese utilities hope to open the nation’s first commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the remote village of Rokkasho in Japan’s northern Aomori prefecture. Building on demonstrated reprocessing designs from France and fitted with state-of-the-art inspection systems, the huge new facility will be able to process 800 tons of spent fuel annually, recovering up to 8 tons of plutonium. The facility is designed, however, not to release separated plutonium, but to internally combine the plutonium with recovered uranium, a product known as mixed-oxide or MOX. The mixture will be stored and eventually turned into fuel for use in Japanese light water reactors. There is currently no commercial demand for this product. None of Japan’s 52 commercial power reactors use MOX fuel, but the Japanese industry hopes to begin converting some of the reactors by the end of the decade, pending licensing and local approval. Japanese fuel is currently reprocessed in Europe and some 38 tons of separated plutonium are already in storage in Europe and Japan.

The reprocessing facility is co-located with a uranium-enrichment plant and facilities for the burial of 3 million of barrels of low-level radioactive waste from power reactors, the temporary (30-50 years) storage of thousands of canisters of high-level vitrified waste from past reprocessing operations and the storage of thousands of used fuel rods awaiting reprocessing. The vitrified waste storage center at Rokkasho-mura can hold 1440 canisters and is already more than half full, with 1100 canisters still to be returned from France and the United Kingdom. (“Mura” is the Japanese suffix for “village.”)

The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum and the government of Japan strongly believe that the capability is necessary for economic and political reasons. The strongest arguments for continuing with the plant are:

Sunk Cost. The Rokkasho reprocessing facility has already cost regional power utilities $20 billion (2.2 trillion yen), a sum few find easy to walk away from.
Storing Nuclear Waste. Spent fuel and other nuclear waste is building up at all of Japan’s power reactors and will soon exceed available storage space. The reprocessing plant is the key to solving this problem, at least politically. The utilities can then ship this material to Rokkasho, where the fuel can be reprocessed into MOX fuel for reactors, the low-level waste buried permanently and the high-level waste stored awaiting disposal to an as yet undetermined final waste repository. Japanese industry officials believe that if the reprocessing plant did not go into operation, local opposition to the radioactive waste would re-ignite, power plants would have no where to move their spent fuel, and the nuclear power industry would collapse.
Energy Independence. Officials say that Japan had always planned on reprocessing to eliminate dependence on foreign sources of energy. The oil shock of the 1970s and the energy embargo during World War II play heavily in these considerations. Thirty-one percent of Japan’s power generation comes from nuclear reactors. Only France (77 percent) and South Korea (40 percent) are greater.
National Pride. The reprocessing facility is being planned in close cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, developing new, improved safeguards to assure that no material is diverted for weapons use (included the US-Japan agreement to only produce mixed plutonium-uranium oxide for storage, not pure plutonium oxide.) Japan has a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy and should not be considered a nuclear weapon threat, officials say.

The main arguments against the facility are:

Cost. Japanese economic models supporting reprocessing were based on flawed assumptions about the future price of uranium, which has remained low. The economic argument for using plutonium as a fuel has always been suspect and given the price of uranium, the large capital cost of plants and other factors has now been seriously weakened. A recent Japanese Atomic Energy Agency Commission report concluded that it was cheaper to bury spent fuel as waste than to reprocess it into fuel. The cost of generating a kilowatt-hour of electricity would be 4.5 yen if the fuel is buried but rises to 5.2 yen with reprocessing.
Proliferation Example. It will be increasingly difficult to convince nations such as Iran and others that they should not build reprocessing facilities if Japan opens this plant. Many proliferation experts believe that no weapon usable materials should be involved in civil applications in any form. Efforts to reform the international nuclear fuel cycle to prevent national ownership of nuclear production facilities would also be undermined by Rokkasho’s operation.
Proliferation Risk. Though it is highly unlikely that Japan would consider building nuclear weapons today, that possibility cannot be ruled out permanently. Having a large amount of plutonium available and plutonium reprocessing capabilities and uranium enrichment facilities (also part of the Rokkasho site) would make if far easier for Japan to acquire nuclear weapons if it decided to do so.
Terrorism Risk. The IAEA requires that MOX be safeguarded at the same level as nuclear weapon material, and for good reason. The plutonium-uranium mixture can be re-separated into weapon usable plutonium. An organized, dedicated terrorist or criminal group might be able to overwhelm plant security and seize enough material for dozens of nuclear weapons.
Environmental Damage. Everything facility at Rokkossah-Mura is dangerous to the environment and requires elaborate and expensive measures to control pollution and nuclear accidents. Greenpeace Japan points out, for example, that just one part of the operation–the venting of radioactive gases released during reprocessing–will make the plant the largest source of Krypton-85 in the world. The radioactive gas released will fairly quickly spread around the world.

On October 7, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission came out in favor of the full reprocessing plan, including the opening of the Rokkasho-mura plant. A final government decision is expected by the end of the year. Then, the first test of the facility involving nuclear materials could occur. Once nuclear materials are introduced, the cost of decommissioning the plant rises exponentially.