Fukushima’s Impact on Japan’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy

One year after the Fukushima disaster, Japan continues to assess its dependency on nuclear energy

The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant
in northeast Aomori Prefecture, Japan

Src: Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited

Even before the Fukushima disaster one year ago, Japan’s heavy dependence on nuclear energy—notwithstanding the country’s devastating experience with nuclear weapons—was contentious both inside and outside the country. In particular, Japan’s strong commitment to the development of a self-sufficient plutonium-based nuclear fuel cycle has generated significant controversy domestically, regionally, and globally. Neighboring countries, previously tormented by Japanese militarism, are especially uneasy with the latent nuclear weapon capability implied by Japan’s excess plutonium and advanced fuel cycle technology. Some, such as South Korea, are seeking their own closed fuel cycle. And Japan’s drive to build the first commercial spent fuel reprocessing plant in a non-nuclear weapon state is seen by some as undermining global efforts to halt the spread of such sensitive technology by providing states such as Iran with a prime example of a “virtual” nuclear weapon state.

In September 2011, six months after Fukushima, Japan began reviewing its entire nuclear energy policy. A key issue has been the future of its planned closed nuclear fuel cycle— involving not only the reprocessing plant but fast breeder reactors to one day burn separated plutonium—and facilities in the meantime to fabricate mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for use in ordinary light water reactors. What Japan decides will have significant implications for regional and global nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

Japan’s Ambitious pre-Fukushima Policy

Japan adopted a closed nuclear fuel cycle policy in the 1960s. As a resource-poor and rapidly industrializing country, the intent was to avoid potential uranium shortages as it turned to nuclear energy to mitigate its strong dependence on imported fossil fuels.[1] Some previous government reviews, such as the November 2004 report by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission’s (JAEC) New Nuclear Policy Planning Council, acknowledged that some of the assumptions underlying this policy were no longer sound—particularly the short term likelihood of uranium shortages and the relative costs of open and closed fuel cycles. However, these findings failed to slow the momentum toward the closed nuclear fuel cycle given Tokyo’s massive investments in relevant facilities.[2] Although that report estimated that the direct disposal option was less expensive than reprocessing, the JAEC concluded that reprocessing was more economical, taking into consideration the cost of a change in policy.[3] This conclusion led to the 2005 Framework for Nuclear Energy Policy, which reconfirmed the importance of commercializing the closed nuclear fuel cycle to promote nuclear energy independence.

In order to advance the 2005 Framework, in 2006 the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) issued a report titled “Nuclear Power Nation Plan,” detailing the actions needed to realize the goals stipulated in the 2005 Framework. These goals included a “pluthermal” fuel cycle for the next few decades: reprocessing of spent fuel, subsequent fabrication of the resulting plutonium and uranium into MOX fuel, and the burning of this fuel in existing light water reactors. It also pushed back the anticipated commercialization of a fast breeder reactor (FBR) until 2050. The current “Strategic Energy Plan of Japan,” which was developed in June 2010 by Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Cabinet, echoed the commitment to a more ambitious nuclear energy policy, including the near-term use of a pluthermal cycle and longer-term utilization of fast breeder reactors.

This policy supported investments in facilities including Monju, the prototype FBR in Fukui prefecture operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), and the construction of the Rokkasho spent fuel recycling complex in Aomori Prefecture (in the northernmost region of Japan’s main island, Honshu) by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL). In addition, in 2005 the prefecture and the local government approved the construction of a MOX fuel fabrication plant next to the reprocessing plant.

Even before Fukushima, this effort had encountered many setbacks, beginning with Monju. In December 1995, a test run of the reactor was halted after a sodium leak in the secondary cooling system. The leaked sodium reacted with the oxygen and moisture in the air causing a fire and filling the secondary coolant piping room with fumes. While no excess radioactivity was released, public outrage erupted when it was revealed that the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC) had tried to cover up the extent of the accident and resulting damage by editing the videotape taken immediately afterwards. The reactor was restarted in May 2010 for the first time in over 14 years, but only a few months later, in August, there was another accident. A 3.3-ton fuel-loading device jammed in the reactor vessel, leaving the plant inoperative.[4]

In addition, despite more than 40 years of research costing more than one trillion yen ($12.3 billion) fast breeder reactors like Monju have continued to be uneconomical given the current low costs of fresh fuel. As a result, the commercialization date continues to recede into the future.

Meanwhile, despite strong domestic and international criticism and opposition, the Rokkasho plant started active testing in March 2006. Yet it has experienced repeated complications during test operations and 18 postponements over 15 years, including a recent delay last month. The government now says the facility will become operational this October.

The Federation of Electric Power Companies (FPEC), an industry group consisting of ten Japanese electric utilities, has long planned to introduce MOX fuel into sixteen to eighteen reactors by 2015; however, delays in the Rokkasho reprocessing plant helped delay construction of the MOX fabrication facility until October 2010. That same year, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) approved the use of MOX fuel in 10 reactors. The fuel was in use at four reactors at the time of the Fukushima accident, including Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3.[5]

As its internal efforts foundered, Japan resorted to shipping much of its spent fuel to France and the United Kingdom for reprocessing, with those countries returning MOX fuel to Japan.[6] By the end of 2010, Japan possessed 44.9 metric tons of separated plutonium; 9.9 metric tons within the country, and 35 metric tons in France and the UK.[7]

Impact of Fukushima and Policy Reviews

Fukushima had an immediate impact on Japan’s pluthermal cycle plans, interrupting all MOX use. The use of MOX—which is more radioactive than the fuel used in other reactors—in Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 generated additional fear among people in surrounding areas following the earthquake and tsunami. Japan has backed away from utilizing MOX, both as a result of the temporary shutdown of nearly all of Japan’s nuclear power plants and because of some particular concerns about the fuel. As of March 2012, only two of Japan’s 54 reactors were operating.[8] Kansai Electric Power Company’s Takahama Unit 3, which recently went offline, had employed MOX fuel before the earthquake but was using conventional uranium after the earthquake.[9] Meanwhile, the owner of one of the last two operating plants, Hokkaido Electronic Power Company’s Tomari Unit 3, was slated to use MOX fuel, but decided to suspend the introduction of the pluthermal cycle.[10] The other plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Kashiwazakikariwa Unit 6, had not used MOX and was not slated to do so. Among the inoperative plants that were using or slated to use MOX, most of them are considering using conventional uranium once they restart, given the concern over further postponement of restarting operations if they choose MOX fuel.[11] Moreover one of the major companies promoting the utilization of MOX was TEPCO, which operated the Fukushima Daiichi plant and is now essentially bankrupt.

Meanwhile, construction on the MOX fabrication facility has been delayed and it is not clear now whether Japan will go ahead with the pluthermal program as originally planned. Japan’s actions in turn helped convince the United Kingdom to shut down its MOX fuel plant at Sellafield, as Japan is the primary customer of that facility.[12]

The accident also led to a spate of governmental reviews. The National Policy Unit’s Energy and Environment Council, which directly reports to the prime minister, is planning to compile the country’s “Innovative Environment and Energy Strategy” by this summer. It will incorporate Japan’s new Framework for Nuclear Energy Policy to be developed by the JAEC, the Basic Energy Plan prepared by METI’s Natural Resources and Energy Agency, and New Strategies to Combat Global Warming by the Ministry of Environment.

Until the new strategy is unveiled, it will be hard to evaluate fully how the Fukushima accident has impacted Japan’s long-term nuclear energy policy. Nevertheless, one relatively short-term impact was seen at the end of 2011, when the government decided to drastically reduce the funding for nuclear fuel cycle research and development in the next fiscal year’s budget, starting in April 2012. The funding for that purpose requested by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) was cut by 25 percent from 40.2 billion yen ($495.4 million) in fiscal 2011 to 30 billion yen in fiscal 2012.[13]

Monju became a particular target of the fundamental review by the Government Revitalization Unit due to its troubled history. Given increasingly anti-nuclear energy public sentiment since March 11, 2011, the government decided not to resume Monju’s experimental operation in fiscal 2012, which will save 2.2 billion yen ($27.1 million). In addition, the budget for Monju’s maintenance and operation costs were cut by 4.1 billion yen ($50.5 million) to 17.5 billion yen ($215.7 million).[14] During a visit to the prototype fast breeder in November, Nuclear Disaster Minister Goshi Hosono also mentioned the possibility of decommissioning Monju.[15]

In order to provide sufficient data to fully assess nuclear power generation and the nuclear fuel cycle, the JAEC established the Technical Subcommittee on Nuclear Power and the Nuclear Fuel Cycle on September 27, 2011. The subcommittee was tasked with calculating the estimated cost of reprocessing and direct disposal. In November, they reported that direct underground disposal of spent fuel would be less expensive than either reprocessing all of Japan’s spent fuel or the current practice of reprocessing half immediately and storing the other half for 20 years before reprocessing.[16]

Nonetheless, the pluthermal policy continues to enjoy support in some quarters. On November 25, 2011, Makoto Yagi, chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) continued to express enthusiastic support for Monju. He insisted that reprocessing is congruent with Japan’s national interests and should not be renounced.[17]

Local governments near the Rokkasho plant also support continuing with closed nuclear fuel cycle developments, no doubt at least in part because of the generous subsidies they receive from Tokyo for hosting nuclear facilities. The governor of Aomori prefecture, Shingo Mimura, approved the new safety measures of the Rokkasho facilities on December 26, 2011, and JNFL announced that it would resume a trial run at its spent fuel reprocessing plant at the end of January with the aim of starting commercial operation this October. However, the trial run was subsequently suspended due to technical problems and is expected to be delayed at least until the end of April, making the operational target date look somewhat implausible.


By next summer, Japan may have a clearer direction for its nuclear energy policy. The majority of public opinion supports moving away from dependence on nuclear power, and an eventual phase-out. According to the opinion poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun last December, 57 percent of voters were opposed to nuclear power while 30 percent were in favor.[18] As Japan considers its fuel cycle policy, it will do so in an environment where public opinion has turned gradually against nuclear power.

Before the Fukushima accident, despite several nuclear power plant accidents and the opaque nature of the nuclear industry, Japanese public approval for nuclear energy was steadily growing, given rising concerns about global warming and energy security. As a result, the government pursued a more ambitious nuclear energy policy, culminating in the 2010 Strategic Energy Plan of Japan.

Whether it will continue to do so is certainly an open question. However, what Japan ultimately decides will have ramifications far from its shores. Japan has the fourth largest stockpile of civilian plutonium, after only the United Kingdom, France, and Russia, and a decision on Japanese reprocessing policy will have a significant impact on a global nuclear nonproliferation regime. If the Rokkasho reprocessing plant begins commercial operation as the current policy stipulates, Japan will continue to increase its domestic plutonium stockpile, separating approximately eight metric tons of plutonium per year, enough to produce 1,000 nuclear weapons.[19] As a world leader in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, the country’s credibility will be seriously questioned. Moving away from the long held goal of commercialization of nuclear fuel cycle will not be easy. But perhaps the unprecedented Fukushima disaster will force the Japanese government to reconsider its longstanding but unwise policy.

Masako Toki is a research associate and manager of the Education Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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[1] According to the most recent Japan’s Annual Report on Energy (Energy White Paper), issued by METI’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy in October 2011, Japan’s trends in electric power amount generated during fiscal 2010 are: nuclear—30.8 percent, oil—8.3 percent, natural gas—27.2 percent, coal—23,9 percent, hydro—7.8 percent, new energy (wind, sun, biomass, geothermal)—1.2 percent, and pumping-up type hydro power—0.9 percent.
[2] “New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council Interim Report,” Japan Atomic Energy Commission’s New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council, November 12, 2004, Translated by Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC).
[3] Tadahiro Katsuta, “Long-Term Nuclear Program Planning Committee publishes costs of nuclear fuel cycle,” Nuke Info Tokyo No. 103, November/December 2004, CNIC.
[4] “Experts weigh in on the controversial Monju fast-breeder reactor project,” Mainichi Shimbun, December 24, 2011.
[5] In addition to TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3, Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO)’s Takahama Unit 3, Shikoku Electric Power Company’s Ikata Unit 3, and Kyushu Electric Power Company’s Genkai Unit 3 were already using the pluthermal program before the earthquake. See this map.
[6] “Japanese Waste and MOX Shipments From Europe,” World Nuclear Association, updated August 2011. Before Japan decided to utilize the pluthermal system, there was one shipment of separated reactor-grade plutonium recovered from spent fuel reprocessing returned to Japan to produce fresh fuel for Monju in 1993.
[7] “The Current Situation of Plutonium Management in Japan,” Japan Atomic Energy Commission, September 20, 2011.
[8] “Nihon no Genshiryoku Hatsudensho no Untenjoukyou After Fukushima [Status of Japan’s Nuclear Power Plants Operation after Fukushima],” Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, February 3, 2012.
[9] Takao Imai, “Prusaamaru Futatabi Teitai: Jichitai Shinchou Shisei, [Local governments’ cautious attitude towards pluthermal will stagnate the plan],” Daily Tohoku Shimbunsha, Feburary 12, 2012.
[10] This is because of the loss of public trust caused by systematic manipulation of public opinion to make it appear that the pluthermal program was more widely supported. “Hokkaido Electric solicited staff for pro-pluthermal nuke project opinions,” Mainichi Shimbun, November 18, 2011.
[11] Imai, “Prusaamaru Futatabi Teitai: Jichitai Shinchou Shisei, [Local governments’ cautious attitude towards pluthermal will stagnate the plan].”
[12] “Sellafield Mox nuclear fuel plant to close,” The Guardian, August 3, 2011.
[13] The Mainichi Daily News, “Gov’t to cut R&D; spending on nuclear fuel cycle program based on fast-breeder reactor,” December 22, 2011.
[14] Jiji Press Ticker Service, “Nuclear-Related Costs Slashed in Japan Budget,” December 24, 2011.
[15] More accurately, Goshi Hosono is Minister of the Environment, Minister for the Restoration from and Prevention of Nuclear Accident, and Minister of State for the Nuclear Power Policy and Administration. “Nuclear Accident Minister Hosono Visits FBR Monju, Suggesting Various Possibilities of Project Should be Considered,” Atoms in Japan, December 5, 2011.
[16] Shota Ushio, “Japan AEC Finds Direct Disposal Less Costly Than Reprocessing,” Nuclear Fuels, November 28, 2011, p. 1.
[17] “Summary of Press Conference Comments,” Makoto Yagi, FEPC Chairman, November 25, 2011.
[18] “Asahi poll: 57% of Japanese say no to nuclear power,” Asahi Shimbun, December 13, 2011.
[19] This figure is based on the IAEA definition of significant quantity as 8 kg of plutonium. It is difficult to calculate the number of nuclear weapons capable of being produced from a given quantity of reactor-grade plutonium. In addition, a large plant such as Rokkasho is likely generate enough “material unaccounted for” to exceed the amount required for one nuclear weapon.

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