Japan Electric Power Co. and 11 electric power companies have agreed to proceed with efforts to conduct an empirical study on reprocessing of used mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel in France supported by Orano, according to the Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPC). “As a nuclear power operator, we believe that this research will greatly contribute to the establishment of reprocessing technologies in Japan in the future,” FEPC said. “Regarding the implementation system, we are considering advancing research in collaboration with Japan Nuclear Fuel, Japan Atomic Energy Agency, the Spent Fuel Reprocessing Agency, and Orano, and details will be announced as soon as decided.”

FEPC added: “We will continue to work to establish the nuclear fuel cycle for the medium- to long-term use of nuclear power, which is essential for improving Japan's energy self-sufficiency rate, securing a stable supply of electric power, and realising carbon neutrality. This aims for the early establishment of reprocessing technology for used MOX fuel. In order to utilise nuclear power generation, it is extremely important to safely and reliably dispose of used fuel based on the policy of the nuclear fuel cycle.”

Following the closure of all of Japan’s NPPs in the water of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, only four reactors have so far been restarted using MOX fuel – Genkai 3, Ikata 3 and Takahama 3&4. FEPC expects at least 12 units to be using MOX by FY2030. Japan, which has limited domestic energy resources, has long understood the economic benefits of recycling uranium and plutonium recovered from used fuel. Until 1998, most Japanese used fuel was sent to France and the UK for reprocessing and MOX fabrication. However, since 1999 it has been stockpiling its used fuel pending operation of its own reprocessing and MOX fabrication facilities.

However, completion of its reprocessing and MOX plants has been repeatedly delayed. Construction of a reprocessing plant at Rokkasho in Aomori Prefecture began in 1993, based on the same technology as Orano's La Hague plant in France, with a planned capacity of 800 tonnes a year. It was expected to be completed by 1997. Construction of a MOX plant, also at Rokkasho, began in late 2010, with a planned capacity of 130 tonnes a year. In January, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd (JNFL), operator of the facility, said completion of the reprocessing plant, would be delayed by two years – the 26th postponement since the project started.

Now, used MOX fuel is also beginning to accumulate in Japan and FEPC says it is necessary to establish reprocessing technologies for used MOX fuel “as soon as possible”. According to Japan’s 6th Basic Energy Plan the aim is to engage in research and development in order to establish such technology in the late 2030s. In addition, the "Direction and Action Guidelines for Future Nuclear Policy" adopted in April urged acceleration of R&D for the early establishment of MOX reprocessing technologies, and in particular the promotion of international cooperation through public-private partnerships.

At a meeting in Paris, earlier in May, Japan's Minister of Economy, Trade & Industry Nishimura Yasutoshi and France’s Minister of Energy Transition Agnès Pannier-Runacher signed a joint statement to further deepen their cooperation including work for the maximum use of nuclear energy to ensure a stable energy supply and achieve carbon neutrality. In particular, they agreed to accelerate exchanges, including support for R&D in a number of areas, one of which was “the promotion of the reprocessing policy that minimises waste and reduces the need for natural uranium”.

FEPC said, in light of these circumstances, it “has decided to proceed with the implementation of reprocessing empirical research with Orano, which has a track record of reprocessing used MOX fuel at commercial plants”. This “will provide necessary technical knowledge for practical use of used MOX fuel reprocessing, such as properties of the fuel and its impact on reprocessing facilities, and will also demonstrate that MOX fuel used at NPPs in Japan can be reprocessed at commercial plants.”

FEPC noted: “We will continue to work to establish the nuclear fuel cycle for the medium- to long-term use of nuclear power, which is essential for improving Japan's energy self-sufficiency, securing a stable supply of electric power, and realising carbon neutrality.”

Image: Orano's La Hague nuclear reprocessing facility in northern France (courtesy of Orano)