Japanese mislead about spent fuel reprocessing costs

The decision-making process on nuclear issues is not always easy to understand in any country. A piece released today by Japanese Mainichi Daily News sheds some light on the confusion around the decision to launch the multi-trillion yen plutonium separation plant in Rokkasho-mura in the north of Japan. According to the respected media outlet, in April 2004 a division head at the national Agency for Natural Resources and Energy instructed a subordinate not to reveal the results of a study assessing the costs of the non-reprocessing option. The analysis illustrated that the alternative option costs would have represented only one fourth to one third (JPY4.2-6.1 trillion or current USD5.5-7.9 billion) of the reprocessing option (USD24.7 billion).

At the time, Masaya Yasui, the official who instructed the cover-up, was the acting Director of the Nuclear Energy Policy Planning Division and apparently involved in nuclear promotion "for many years".

Mainichi Daily News concludes: "In other words, those involved in the promotion of nuclear power blocked moves toward abandoning the nuclear fuel recycling project". Accordingly, the government "worked out the current nuclear power policy outline", which calls for the reprocessing of spent fuel, on an entirely erroneous basis.

The information comes only two weeks after Kyodo News/Mainichi revealed that Japan and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are holding "backstage talks" over the discovery of large quantities of unreported enriched uranium and plutonium in nuclear waste disposed of by various Japanese nuclear facilities. A government investigation identified 636 grams of plutonium and some 2.8 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in waste at Japan Atomic Energy Agency's (JAEA) facilities, the Oarai Research and Development Center and the Nuclear Science Research Institute at Tokai-mura, both in Ibaraki Prefecture. In August 2011, the investigation had been expanded to about 250 facilities under IAEA safeguards. In 14 facilities unaccounted-for nuclear materials were identified, including around 4 tons of low enriched uranium at a private nuclear fuel company.

The discoveries raise serious questions about the decision-making process on nuclear issues and the reliability of Japanese nuclear material accounting.