Power Line
The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan Vol.22
September 2003

Japan's New Guidelines for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle and the Use of Plutonium

On August 5, 2003, the Atomic Energy Commission of Japan (AEC) released a report entitled On the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. This report presents a broad overview of the nuclear fuel cycle and was compiled based on several policy discussions at various review meetings that were held beginning in November 2002 (“Panel to Discuss the Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle”). At that time, public trust in nuclear power had been shaken resulting from disclosures of the inappropriate handling of voluntary inspection records at a number of nuclear power plants.

AEC Report Principles

The AEC report emphasizes that the proper management of the nuclear fuel cycle will be instrumental in enhancing the efficiency of resource utilization and in reducing radiation effects from high-level radioactive waste. Moreover, it points out that a closed nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear power generation program is an attractive and effective path that Japan can justifiably follow in order to enhance energy security for the country and help mitigate global warming.

JNFL's Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant

The AEC report concludes that because considerable amounts of time and money are required to implement a nuclear fuel recycling program and to establish a technological foundation for its proper management, decisions on desirable policy and program options should not be postponed. Additionally, the report concludes that a closed nuclear fuel cycle should be promoted as the central tenet of the country's basic nuclear energy policy.

The government is now in the process of formulating a Basic Energy Plan that will provide guidelines for the nation's energy supply and demand in the years ahead. This plan is expected to emphasize the promotion of nuclear power generation and nuclear fuel recycling.

Transparency in Plutonium Utilization

Meanwhile, Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited's (JNFL's) Rokkasho spent fuel reprocessing plant is preparing for commercial operation. This plant will be Japan's first commercial nuclear reprocessing facility and it will be responsible for separating and recovering significant amounts of plutonium. Therefore, the industry must aim to attain further transparency in the utilization of this sensitive substance.

Accordingly, accompanying the report, the Commission has also decided on Basic Principles for the Utilization of Plutonium, which requires Japanese electric power companies to annually announce their plans for the utilization of plutonium – before its reprocessing – by setting forth the names of the plutonium's owners, the amount of plutonium in their possession and the purposes of its utilization. Explanations of plutonium use purposes must also include information about quantities for utilization, as well as where, when and for how long the plutonium will be used. If plans for the utilization of plutonium are likely to be affected by the progress of the electric utilities' projects for the consumption of mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel in thermal reactors, as well as by the operation of the JNFL's reprocessing plant and other facilities, Japan's electric utilities and JNFL will be expected to revise their plans as circumstances demand.

The AEC has adhered to the principle that Japan should not possess “unneeded or surplus plutonium,” and the national government has been encouraging the disclosure of information about the uses of plutonium by making public the inventory of managed plutonium every year. Thus, these recently formulated basic principles represent the Commission's intention to boost the transparency of plutonium use and provide further security in the utilization of this material.

Japan's Safeguards System

From the very first, Japan has utilized nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes, in accordance with the Atomic Energy Basic Law of 1955. As a pledge to the international community that Japan will only use plutonium for solely peaceful purposes, it has been a signatory country to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) since 1976. Under that treaty, all nuclear materials in Japan are subject to the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) safeguards and all nuclear facilities in Japan receive IAEA as well as domestic inspections. In addition, Japan signed the IAEA Additional Protocol in 1998. These numerous assurances should allay any concerns about Japan's peaceful utilization of plutonium from the perspective of nuclear non-proliferation.

With the publication of the AEC guidelines, the Japanese government thus reaffirms its policy commitment to promote nuclear power generation and the nuclear fuel cycle. Naturally, gaining the understanding of local citizens is also essential for assuring steady nuclear power development. All of the Tokyo Electric Power Company's seventeen nuclear power units were suspended for safety checks, but seven of them have resumed operations with the understanding of local communities.

We in the Japanese electric power industry will continue our efforts to promote nuclear power generation and to establish an effective nuclear fuel cycle, based on the important principles of safety and nuclear non-proliferation.

Japan's Safeguards System