BNG set to start shipping radioactive waste again

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

A series of shipments containing highly radioactive waste will leave Britain for Japan next year, with possibly more consignments afterward if Japanese electricity companies agree to a deal offered by the British government, according to a source in the Japanese power industry.

Approximately 127,500 liters of waste, the result of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, will be sent to the Rokkasho nuclear facility in Aomori Prefecture from British Nuclear Group Ltd. in Sellafield, northwest England, the source said.

About 10 shipments will be made, probably in the spring or autumn, the source said. The high-level waste is mixed with glass and hardened, and will be contained in steel canisters and transported in specially designed ultra-secure ships. It will be kept buried at Rokkasho for at least 40 years.

Shipments have been delayed because state-owned BNG has been addressing problems at its reprocessing plant. These now appear to be rectified.

BNG came under of a cloud with the Japanese power industry after it was found that workers had skipped quality control tests on some mixed uranium-plutonium oxide, or MOX, fuel sent to Japan in 1999 for use in a reactor in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture. The fuel was sent back.

It was to have been Japan’s first large-scale use of foreign MOX fuel. Other scares have delayed Japan’s use of MOX, but there are plans to have 18 reactors using the fuel by 2010.

U.K. environmentalists oppose the shipments of high-level waste. Martin Forwood, an antinuclear campaigner who lives near Sellafield, said, “We object to the shipments on the basis of the risks of conventional and nuclear accidents, not to mention any acts of terrorism en route and the environmental consequences.

“We take the view that it would be far more sensible to keep all wastes at Sellafield on the principle that it reduces overseas transports to zero. I.e., no more wastes to Sellafield and no wastes out.”

The waste is the product of several decades of reprocessing by BNG of spent uranium nuclear fuel from Japanese utilities. Reprocessing produces fresh uranium, plutonium and highly radioactive waste.

The uranium recovered from the reprocessing is likely to be enriched in Russia to make fresh fuel. The waste must be taken back as part of the contract. The high-level waste has been cooled for years to be sent back to Japan.

In addition to high-level waste, the reprocessing also results in intermediate and low-level waste. These types are less radioactive but larger in volume.

Whereas high-level waste contains 99 percent of the radioactivity in the used fuel, intermediate waste carries only 1 percent. Intermediate waste includes contaminated equipment and sludge resulting from the treatment process. Low-level waste includes paper towels, clothing and lab equipment used in connection with the radioactive materials.

The governor of Aomori and 10 Japanese utilities, which each own a share of the waste, are currently considering a plan submitted by the British government and BNG on what to do with the Japanese-owned intermediate- and low-level waste.

Britain has offered to retain and bury all of Japan’s intermediate- and low-level waste. In return, however, the Japanese utilities will have to take back some of BNG’s remaining stocks of high-level waste from other countries.

If the deal goes ahead, the total level of radioactivity in the waste taken back to Japan would remain the same as if all of Japan’s intermediate- and low-level waste had been returned.

Any decision is likely to come after the new Rokkasho reprocessing facility begins operations early next year.

“I think that the Japanese utilities will go ahead with the substitution plan as there is a lot of merit to it,” the industry source said.

The arrangement reduces shipping and disposal costs for the Japanese utilities.

BNG offered to keep the bulkier waste as it has more space for disposal than in Japan. The company will also charge the Japanese electric companies around $5 million — the costs of rearranging the waste shipments and deciding what high-level waste to send back.

It has been worked out that if the plan is agreed to, an additional 22,500 liters of high-level waste will be sent to Japan. The utilities do not anticipate any difficulties in getting agreement from the Japanese government for this plan. But antinuclear campaigner Forwood opposes waste substitution because it means the continuance of shipments.