Draft legislation to enable stable funding for used fuel reprocessing in Japan, to be overseen by a new government-backed corporation, was approved by the cabinet on 5 February. The bill is expected to be enacted during the current parliamentary session.

The bill would replace Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL) with a state-authorised corporation as the main player in the programme. JNFL funded by the power utilities.

Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL) is a private company set up in 1992 to operate nuclear fuel cycle facilities, including uranium enrichment, reprocessing of used fuel, mixed-oxide (mox) fuel fabrication, and disposal of low-level radioactive wastes. It is a joint stock company owned by the electric power utilities, with some wider shareholding. JNFL operates a major complex at Rokkasho-mura in Aomori prefecture.

The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (Jaif) said the bill "enables stable funding for the business and the creation of a spent fuel reprocessing corporation through a ‘contribution system’. In addition, reprocessing would be overseen by a corporation as an "authorised judicial entity (with) a proper system of governance at the core".

A committee, established to act as the corporation’s decision-making body, will comprise up to four third-party ‘trustees’. The committee president will be appointed directly by the Ministry of economy trade and industry (Meti). All trustees will require ministerial approval.

Jaif said: JNFL, "with its accumulated technology and human resources", will be commissioned by the new corporation to conduct onsite operations.

A special working group under the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy (part of Meti) has been discussing reprocessing since mid-2015. In addition, the advisory committee wanted to ensure there was no "slow up" in the reprocessing business because of difficulties in raising funding, Jaif said. Meti head Motoo Hayashi told reporters that outside experts will be involved along with the government in managing the new organisation.

In a statement the same day, Meti noted that reprocessing and the use of mox fuel are key parts of the Basic Energy Plan approved by the cabinet in April 2014. It was announced last year that ministers had decided on a new policy ‘action plan’ for dealing with used nuclear fuel.

According to Jaif, the government plans to "work steadily toward the completion" of Japan’s Rokkasho reprocessing plant and the Mutsu interim storage facility, "after confirming their compatibility" with regulatory standards introduced after the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident "while seeking local understanding".

The government is seeking to sustain the reprocessing programme in face of concerns that the utilities could withdraw if their business worsens after the retail market for electricity is fully liberalised in April. State-authorized bodies cannot be dissolved without government permission.

The bill would require the utilities to continue their financial contribution after the new body is launched. Nuclear plant operators will be required to contribute to the reprocessing fund according to how much used fuel they generate.Currently, Japan’s 10 power companies deposit fees for future reprocessing with the Radioactive Waste Management Funding Research Centre (RWMC). The fee is JPY0.5 (0.4 US cents) per kilowatt-hour of nuclear electricity generated. This is supervised by the government’s Agency for NaturalResources and Energy (ANRE). ANRE reported that the fee deposits at RWMC amounted to JPY 2,400bn ($21bn) as of March 2015.

In late January, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) restarted vitrification of high-level liquid nuclear waste held at the Tokai reprocessing plant after a nine-year break. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) approved the resumption of vitrification "as storage in vitrified packages is recognised as improving safety".

Jaif said about 400 cubic metres of high-level liquid waste is currently held at the Tokai reprocessing plant in Ibaraki Prefecture. JAEA expects to produce around 50 packages of vitrified waste by the end of April. Construction of the reprocessing plant started in 1971 and trial operations began in 1977. The plant operated from 1981 to 2006 when a contract for reprocessing used fuel from Japan’s NPPs ended.

Meanwhile, the start up of JNFL’s Rokkasho fuel reprocessing facility (including vitrification) has been delayed to 2018. The $25bn facility has been under construction since the late 1980s. In early January the start date of the project was pushed back for the 23rd time in face of technical and safety issues. The government see reprocessing generally, and Rokkasho specifically, as a way of reducing import dependence and solving the problem of dealing with some17,000t of used fuel, including 3,000t stored at Rokkasho.