Rokkasho plows ahead despite obstacles

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.

But the most controversial facility at Rokkasho is the one currently under construction — a reprocessing plant that will convert spent nuclear fuel from uranium reactors into mixed uranium/plutonium, or MOX, fuel.

The plant, if put into operation, will be able to reprocess about 800 metric tons of uranium per year, and, in the process, create nearly 5 metric tons of plutonium.

JNFL says it does not plan to let the plutonium just sit there. It wants to get into the MOX fuel fabrication business about four to five years after the reprocessing plant opens, and to manufacture about 130 tons of MOX per year for Japanese, and possibly foreign, nuclear power plants. Thus, there are plans for the construction of 120 billion yen worth of facilities for a MOX fabrication plant.

But just how realistic is it to expect that Rokkasho will work as JNFL is advertising? Between the cost overruns for the reprocessing plant — the estimated 2.17 trillion yen is three times the original estimate — the public trust lost due to the scandal involving Tokyo Electric Power Co., and questions about Rokkasho’s safety, many inside and outside Rokkasho have their doubts.

Masako Sawai, a staff member of the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an antinuclear group, says the problems of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant start with the way it was constructed.

“The basic architectural blueprints for the plant came from a French company, but the plans had to be altered to take into account the possibility of earthquakes,” Sawai said.

“Japanese firms were in charge of the necessary alterations and additions, but because of the complexity and rush to finish the plant, some of the designs were mistranscribed, and this resulted in a number of faulty or missing parts having been discovered during construction.”

In February, 2000, it was learned that a storage tank for low-level waste and two storage tanks for high-level waste were lacking important parts because a blueprint had been mistranscribed.

“Fortunately, these mistakes were discovered. But, in the rush to finish construction by 2005, you have to wonder whether or not other, similar mistakes were made,” Sawai said.

And, even assuming the Rokkasho plant operates without technical problems, questions remain over whether it makes sense economically, and not just among antinuclear activists.

On top of the construction overruns, costs are expected to balloon at the reprocessing stage — making for a more expensive product — and again at the burning stage.

The Japanese Agency for Natural Resources and Energy estimates that reprocessing at Rokkasho will cost at least 350 million yen per metric ton of spent fuel, or roughly 1 1/2 times what it costs to reprocess fuel in England or France.

Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, based in Maryland, adds: “The plutonium fuel from Rokkasho would be the most expensive in the world by far. Abandoning Rokkasho would, economically, be the wise thing to do.”

Like the Japanese Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, the U.S. institute estimates that the nuclear fuel extracted at Rokkasho will cost nearly 20 times what it costs to burn conventional uranium.

Rokkasho officials and utility companies, however, continue to insist that the reprocessing plant and other facilities will play a key role in meeting Japan’s energy needs. At the same time, however, they admit that the road to convincing the public of that appears longer than ever.

“We need to work harder at explaining to the public what Rokkasho is all about and show that we have made safety our top priority,” the JNFL’s Hirata said.

But given the growing doubts about the wisdom of Rokkasho even among nuclear power supporters, Hirata’s — and JNFL’s — task seems likely to grow increasingly difficult.