October 2002

Rokkasho plows ahead despite obstacles

The Japan Times, October 18, 2002
By Eric Johnston

[Posted 22/10/2002]

Merits of nuclear reprocessing questioned amid cost overruns, safety scandals

ROKKASHO, Aomori Pref. -- Despite the recent string of nuclear safety scandals and growing international doubt over Japan's nuclear energy program, the government remains determined to go forward with the opening of a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant now being constructed in the village of Rokkasho.

As of August, nearly 90 percent of construction at the reprocessing plant had been completed. Japan Nuclear Fuels Ltd., which will operate the plant, expressed confidence that it would open as scheduled in July 2005.

"From 2005, the plant will be able to reprocess about 800 tons of spent fuel per year, equivalent to the annual amount of spent fuel generated by about 30 power plants," said Yoshio Hirata, senior managing director of JNFL's reprocessing business division.

The Rokkasho reprocessing plant is just one of many buildings that sit on about 3.8 million sq. meters of windswept marshes on the northern edge of Aomori Prefecture. Originally conceived as a storage area for oil in the event Japan lost its Middle East supply, the town of Rokkasho became a center for the nation's expanding nuclear energy program in the 1980s, when the government decided to build a uranium enrichment plant and a low-level radioactive waste-disposal center in the area.

Both facilities were completed in 1992. A high-level waste facility, built to store waste from spent Japanese fuel reprocessed overseas, was opened in 1995.

"At the uranium enrichment plant, the plan is to produce 1,500 tons of uranium per year, enough to meet one-third of Japan's nuclear fuel needs," Hirata said. "Current capacity is just over 1,000 tons a year. The low-level waste facility holds 200 liter drums of things like used gloves, uniforms, old rags, and other items that have been exposed to small amounts of nuclear radiation."

About 145,000 drums of low-level waste from nuclear power plants all over Japan are currently buried at Rokkasho, and the plan is to expand the facility to the point it will be able to hold 3 million drums.

However, a series of incidents at the waste-disposal site have called into question the effectiveness of Rokkasho's safety procedures.

In September 1999, radioactive liquid leaks were discovered on waste drums shipped from power plants in Fukushima Prefecture and Hamaoka, Shizuoka Prefecture. An investigation showed that some of the liquid waste that had been mixed with cement had not fully dried and that there was corrosion on the drums, causing leakage.

The high-level waste-storage area is an underground facility that currently can store nearly 1,500 canisters of vitrified high-level waste. There are plans to increase the capacity to nearly 3,000 canisters.

"The high-level waste is stored here for 30 to 50 years," Hirata said. "After that, it will be taken out and buried deep in the ground elsewhere in Japan." Where, exactly, has not yet been decided, as the national government has yet to begin discussions with local governments about the possibility of accepting some of the waste for burial.

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