Mon, Jul 05, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Scandal hits Japan's nuclear program

ALLEGATIONS Officials face accusations that they suppressed a crucial study showing that recycling nuclear waste would cost twice as much as conventional disposal methods

AP , TOKYO

It was supposed to help revive Japan's troubled nuclear program -- and curb the country's heavy reliance on energy imports. But as Tokyo considers long-term plans to switch to an experimental, recycled nuclear fuel, it is also facing new allegations that officials misled the public in the past about less pricey alternatives.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry acknowledged on Saturday that a study it conducted in 1994 showed that reprocessing radioactive waste into a plutonium-uranium fuel would cost twice as much as burying it at a disposal site.

The study wasn't publicly released until after reports about it surfaced Saturday in the national Asahi and Mainichi newspapers.

"It was originally for internal decision-making purposes only," ministry official Tadao Yanase said.

Yanase said the ministry wasn't even considering directly disposing of nuclear waste from commercial reactors a decade ago.

The allegations that policy-makers concealed data about reprocessing fuel costs marked the latest setback for the nation's nuclear program, which has been plagued by recent safety violations, reactor malfunctions and accidents.

They come as the Atomic Energy Commission, which draws up energy policy, prepares to meet in coming weeks to discuss scaling back plans to use reprocessed fuel -- known as mixed oxide, or MOX -- for reactors in the face of opposition from local residents and criticism from nuclear experts.

Japan's 52 nuclear plants account for nearly 35 percent of its energy supply. Officials say future expansion of the nuclear grid is crucial: It would lower resource-poor Japan's dependence on oil, natural gas and coal imports, they say.

A policy blueprint calls for building 11 new plants and raising electricity output to nearly 40 percent of the national supply by 2010. As many as 18 electricity-generating reactors would use MOX as a transition to more advanced fast-breeder reactors, which run on plutonium and can also generate extra plutonium fuel.

"MOX is more efficient than current technology. We could recycle spent uranium fuel, not just burn through it once like we do now," said Osamu Goto, a Cabinet Office energy policy official.

Experts say the MOX program would solve another problem: a shortage of nuclear waste-storage space.

With no permanent nuclear waste disposal site in Japan, domestic nuclear plants are forced to hold onto spent fuel rods, said Tatsujiro Suzuki, a nuclear researcher at the Central Research Institute of the Electric Power Industry.

Media reports say those waste-storage pools will be full within a decade.

"If nuclear plants can't send their waste to a repository, they will have to shut down once their pools are filled," Suzuki said.

But a string of safety problems since the country's worst nuclear accident in 1999 has left the program in a shambles and undermined public faith in nuclear energy.

Japan's only plant designed to run on MOX, the Fugen reactor, has been permanently shuttered since March last year due to high operating costs.

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