Japan Program for Reuse of Nuclear MOX Fuel in Doubt

 The Japanese government has pushed for the reuse of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in the country’s nuclear reactors, but utilities that finance the reprocessing have not funded those operations since fiscal year 2016, according to financial reports released by the power companies on September 2.

Japan’s KYODO News reported that sources said 10 utilities, including Tokyo Electric Power Company and Japan Atomic Power Co., stopped setting aside funds for reprocessing costs because of what Kyodo said were “huge expenses” to build reprocessing facilities.

Japan’s government updated the country’s Basic Energy Plan earlier this year after its first review in four years. The new plan includes a pledge to reduce the country’s stockpile of plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel, which reportedly came after the U.S. expressed concern about Japan’s stockpile. Japan is the only country without nuclear weapons with the authority to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

The energy plan outlined in July for the first time also allowed utilities to consider spent MOX fuel as nuclear waste, which has brought debate about how to deal with it.

A Rollercoaster for MOX

The Trump administration earlier this year ended construction of a Department of Energy (DOE) facility near the Savannah River in Aiken, South Carolina, that would have converted weapons-grade plutonium—produced by the U.S. during the Cold War era—into MOX fuel for use in U.S. commercial reactors. The multibillion-dollar project was scrapped after years of delay involving lawsuits and cost overruns. Costs to complete the project, a joint venture of Chicago Iron & Steel and France’s Areva (now Framatome), were estimated last year at an additional $17 billion. The National Nuclear Security Administration, part of the DOE, estimated about $7.6 billion had been spent on construction prior to the project being abandoned.

Eugene Gleason, vice president of business development for Huntsville, Alabama-based GLSEQ, a global nuclear safety engineering solutions provider that has worked with Japan’s nuclear industry, told POWER on September 4 it’s “not surprising” the MOX program is facing headwinds. Gleason met with POWER at the RadWaste Summit in Henderson, Nevada, where he is a speaker and a member of the advisory committee for the conference presented by ExchangeMonitor, a POWER magazine sister company.

“There simply isn’t that much demand for the [MOX] fuel,” Gleason said. He also noted the slow pace of reactor restarts in Japan.

“First of all, you have to make the safety [upgrades] to your facility. Then you have to get those safety plans approved by the government,” Gleason said. “Then you have to get local [officials’] approval. It’s a slow process.”

The Japan Times earlier this year said Japan had a plutonium stockpile of 47 tons, which included 37 tons stored in Britain and France. Those countries have been commissioned to reprocess spent fuel from Japan’s nuclear plants.

A Slow Recovery after Fukushima

Only nine nuclear reactors have resumed operation in Japan after the Fukushima disaster in 2011; Japan idled 50 reactors after that event. At present, just four of the nine operating are capable of using MOX fuel: two reactors at Kansai Electric Power’s Takahama plant, one reactor at Shikoku Electric Power’s Ikata plant, and one reactor at Kyushu Electric Power’s Genkai plant. The MOX fuel is only used in small amounts, in what is known as pluthermal power generation.

The government had looked at the use of MOX fuel in conventional reactors as a way to diminish the plutonium stockpile, and had planned to have the fuel used in as many as 18 reactors by 2015, but the pace of reactor restarts has been slow due to new government safety standards established after Fukushima.

If MOX fuel is not able to be reprocessed, nuclear fuel can only be reused once. Japan had allocated about ¥230 billion (USD$2.06 billion) in reserves for reprocessing as of March 2016, before the utilities apparently stopped funding the program.

Currently, only two reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama power plant, one reactor at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant, and one reactor at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Genkai power plant use MOX fuel in so-called pluthermal power generation.

Japan’s power generators have invested in a venture called Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., which has backed development of a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori prefecture in northeastern Japan along with a MOX fuel fabrication plant, at a cost of about ¥16 trillion (USD$145.3 billion). The Rokkasho plant, whose construction has been repeatedly delayed, reportedly would be able to reprocess up to 800 tons of spent nuclear fuel annually, resulting in the extraction of about 8 tons of plutonium.


Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).

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