Time to Stop Reprocessing in Japan

By Toki, Masako; Pomper, Miles | Arms Control Today, January/February 2013 | Go to article overview

Time to Stop Reprocessing in Japan


Toki, Masako, Pomper, Miles, Arms Control Today


Japan began operations at its first commercial nuclear power plant in 1966. For more than four decades, Tokyo never veered from its goals of increasing nuclear energy's share of electricity generation and developing a self-sufficient plutonium-based nuclear fuel cycle.

The March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor complex, the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, forced Japan's government and citizens to reconsider the country's long-held nuclear policy. Under public pressure, the government advanced a key strategy document calling for phasing out nuclear power, although Tokyo has hesitated to endorse its recommendations formally amid opposition from industry, some local communities, and foreign allies-including the United States, France, and the United Kingdom-that have a stake in Japan's nuclear policy.

An inadequately discussed aspect of the new policy and the most important from a nonproliferation point of view is Japan's refusal, even amid a potential nuclear energy phaseout, to abandon its controversial program for reprocessing spent fuel to separate plutonium. Japan is the only nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) non-nuclear-weapon state that possesses full-scale nuclear fuel facilities, including spent fuel reprocessing facilities. Despite Japan's otherwise admirable nonproliferation record, Tokyo's reprocessing program has long been a source of concern for Japan's neighbors and for governmental and nongovernmental nonproliferation advocates around the world because it provides Japan with the ability to produce material that is usable in nuclear weapons. Those concerns have only grown, as other Asian nuclear energy powers, particularly South Korea, point to Japan's program-and U.S. support for it-as a justification for moving forward with their own reprocessing efforts.

The possibilities for changing this policy have been further clouded by Japanese's parliamentary elections on December 16. In the first national election since the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory in the lower house of Japan's National Diet over the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The majority of the Japanese public continues to support the phaseout backed by the previous DPJ government, but the LDP won the election because of dissatisfaction with DPJ performance on other issues, particularly economic concerns.

The LDP, which ruled Japan for nearly half a century until 2009, advocates a more conservative approach to a potential nuclear phaseout than the DPJ or most other Japanese parties. During its time in power, the LDP also promoted Japan's closed fuel-cycle policy, in which spent fuel from light-water reactors (LWRs) is reprocessed to yield plutonium that could be used in making new fuel. However, the LDP's junior coalition partner, New Komeito, supports the phaseout of nuclear power as soon as possible, shutdown of the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, and a review of Japan's fuel cycle policy, including a transition from reprocessing to direct disposal of spent fuel.

Although it is certain that the trend in Japan will be to de-emphasize the role of nuclear power in electricity generation, it is unclear at this stage how fast or far the Japanese government will move forward with phasing out nuclear power. The LDP-led government will likely slow the DPJ policy. Before the December elections in the lower house, in which most of the political parties that supported the phaseout of nuclear energy lost seats, the LDP proposed spending up to 10 years to decide the best long-term energy mix for the country, but endorsed a reduction in Japan's dependence on nuclear power.

The LDP and New Komeito have reached a compromise agreement under which Japan will reduce reliance on nuclear energy as much as possible. Yet, Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister, favors continuing to build new, more advanced nuclear reactors, different from the earlier generation of reactors that included the ones at Fukushima Daiichi. …

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