Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. looks certain to face a fresh delay in the completion of its spent fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, as regulators are unlikely to end their safety checks by the end of this month, as the company had expected.
With no prospect in sight for the end of the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s safety screening, it is uncertain whether Japan Nuclear Fuel will be able to complete the plant by the end of March 2016, as currently scheduled, sources familiar with the situation said Monday.
The plant, a core facility of Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle project, is designed to extract uranium and plutonium from spent fuel, while solidifying other high-level radioactive waste from the reprocessing process by mixing them with glass to make their storage easier.
Due to a series of problems, Japan Nuclear Fuel has postponed the facility completion a total of 21 times. It is owned by companies, including nine major electricity firms with nuclear plants and Japan Atomic Power Co.
Some ¥2.2 trillion has been spent on the plant so far, nearly triple the initial estimate. Funds are procured via electricity fees.
In January last year, Japan Nuclear Fuel applied for safety checks by the NRA for the plant’s commercial operations, based on new safety standards introduced in July 2013 reflecting lessons from the Fukushima crisis.
When Japan Nuclear Fuel submitted the safety check application, it assumed that the NRA would finish its screening in six months. After the NRA pointed out a number of problems, Japan Nuclear Fuel revised its assumption and said it expected the screening to be ended by this month.
But it now looks impossible to gain safety approval from the NRA by the end of this month because it has failed to provide convincing explanations about measures for responding to severe accidents and its projection for the maximum strength of earthquakes that could hit the plant, the sources said.
Japan Nuclear Fuel’s scenario was that after the facility passes NRA checks, it would be able to complete work in nine months to improve safety measures at the plant to meet the new standards.
A Japan Nuclear Fuel official said, however, that “as the work period can be shortened, there is no change in the schedule to complete the facility by March next year even if the NRA’s safety checks are not finished by the end of this month.”
The facility has a storage pool with a capacity to store up to 3,000 tons of spent fuel. Some 98 percent of this capacity has been taken by spent fuel from nuclear plants across the country.
With the facility having little room for more fuel, Japan could face problems in storing spent fuel if idled reactors resume operations.