Rokkasho: nuclear white elephant or yen sucking black hole?

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

As one approaches Rokkasho, a small town of 11,000 on the remote, windswept coast of Aomori Prefecture at the very north of Japan’s main island, Honshu, one sees dozens of power-generating windmills spinning away. Aside from this ambitious renewable energy project, Rokkasho also is the site for a national petroleum reserve, but it is most infamous for something that is not yet operating.

Two decades and $21 billion after construction commenced, Japan’s nuclear reprocessing and waste storage facility at Rokkasho may finally start operating in 2014, but probably later. There have been numerous delays and large cost overruns, but the operator, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL), is hopeful because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has revived prospects for restarting nuclear reactors. The Japan Atomic Energy Commission and JNFL want to get the facility running as soon as possible, but the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) is busy reviewing applications to restart 12 reactors based on the new safety guidelines issued in July 2013.

The NRA has also drafted tighter regulation standards, which take effect in December 2013 for facilities like Rokkasho that deal with nuclear fuel and is expected to conduct an in-depth geological survey of the site to determine if it is located on top of active fault-lines. Thus the timing of Rokkasho’s commissioning remains uncertain.

A report issued recently by the Princeton, New Jersey-based International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), compiled by independent nuclear experts, gives a failing grade to Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling policy and urges reconsideration because it is, “dysfunctional, dangerous and costly” and because “Japan is undermining the non-proliferation regime.” The IPFM recommends, inter alia, a government takeover of spent fuel management, air-cooled dry-cask storage of spent fuel at nuclear power plants, continuation of local subsidies to offset axing the reprocessing project and deep burial of Japan’s 44 tons of separated plutonium.

Critics point out that Rokkasho’s capacity is inadequate to cope with the waste generated by Japan’s fifty reactors; its pools for temporary storage of spent fuel are already 95 percent full. Delays are partially due to problems with Rokkasho’s kiln, which is supposed to turn unrecyclable nuclear waste into glass for onsite underground storage. But if Japan revs up all those reactors, Rokkasho’s waste storage capacity will be maxed out in two decades. Given “not in my back yard” politics and seismic vulnerabilities, there is no apparent permanent burial site. Just north of Rokkasho in the town of Mutsu, there are plans to build a dry-cask nuclear-waste storage facility (common in the United States, France and Germany) for Tokyo Electric Power Co., but this has limited capacity.

Recycling spent fuel comes with a staggering price tag; a projected $245 billion over 40 years. Just burying it would be much cheaper, but then the government would have to coax a desperate town in a lightly populated area with a stable geology to become the nation’s designated nuclear cesspool for the next few centuries. Is there such a place in Japan? Aomori has already said “No thanks.” With the Rokkasho and Mutsu facilities, a nuclear reactor close by at Higashidori (that the NRA believes is sited above active geological faults) and another under construction at Oma, this backwater already is a major nuclear node.

Mothballing Rokkasho would force the plant to return the nuclear waste it currently stores for Japan’s utilities, but they are also running out of temporary storage capacity; spent fuel pools at Japan’s nuclear power plants are on average 70 percent full.

Rokkasho is designed to produce nine tons of separated plutonium a year by reprocessing spent fuel rods extracted from Japan’s nuclear reactors. This recycling of nuclear fuel is critical to deal with the massive amounts of accumulated nuclear waste, but how will the stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium be used if reactors remain idled?

The Wall Street Journal reported that, “Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, met in April in Washington with Obama administration officials, and paraphrased what he said was their message: ‘Allowing Japan to acquire large amounts of plutonium without clear prospects for a plutonium-use plan is a bad example for the rest of the world.’”

In 1988 the U.S. granted Japan permission to reprocess plutonium from U.S.-origin spent fuel on the understanding that this would be used for energy generation. Japan is the only nation without nuclear weapons that is allowed under international law to enrich uranium and extract plutonium with minimal scrutiny. Although the IAEA conducts inspections to ensure that none is being diverted, this doesn’t necessarily convince Japan’s neighbors. Seoul is also envious of Japan’s deal with Washington and remains frustrated that earlier this year the administration of President Barack Obama postponed concluding an agreement with South Korea allowing it to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

But there are good reasons to go slow, because as in Japan, the Korean nuclear power industry has a credibility problem. Three of South Korea’s nuclear reactors have been shut down this year after revelations about fraudulent quality certificates and safety tests for critical plant equipment. The Korean nuclear industry, as in Japan, engaged in extensive, deliberate fabrications; cozy and collusive relations between nuclear watchdog officials and reactor operators undermined the requisite safety culture at nuclear plants.

On a recent trip to Aomori, I met both advocates and critics of local nuclear energy projects. The advocates stress the economic benefits — jobs, subsidies and infrastructure — for a hard up region. One hotelier said that nixing such projects would be unfair to landlords who built accommodations for construction workers and hoped for a new highway because there is no adequate evacuation route. A barber shrugged off the Fukushima fiasco and said that Rokkasho is safe because some French are on the job.

But the new reactor being constructed at Oma, the world-renowned tuna port at the tip of Honshu Island, attracts considerable ire. Local sushi chefs and some fishermen angrily denounce the project as folly. But what might be viewed as brand-threatening to some is seen as a lifeline by others. The lure of lavish subsidies is very tempting for hosting communities with no other promising options.

At the Rokkasho PR Center I was told that post-Fukushima, local doubts had increased and that there is a small antinuclear movement, but walking around the center’s various displays the message remains unambiguous; nuclear energy is necessary, safe, environmentally friendly, reliable and cheap. In retrospect, a fascinating time warp, but then the entire reprocessing project has been overtaken by events and 21st century economic realities. Some locals suspect and resent that Aomori might end up as the nation’s de facto nuclear waste dump. Alas, they are probably right, as the nuclear village has left a trail of broken promises.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.