ROKKASHO, Aomori Pref. — Despite safety concerns and local anger over allegations raised in July that the government hid a report showing that reprocessing spent atomic fuel costs more than burying it, officials at Rokkasho say they hope to begin uranium testing soon in preparation for the opening of the reprocessing plant in 2006.

As of the end of May, construction of the plant was 95 percent completed. Officials at Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., which will operate the plant, say plans call for the Rokkasho facility to reprocess 800 tons of spent nuclear fuel from Japan’s reactors.

The complex, which sits on the northeastern part of Aomori Prefecture, is being built in a way that will make it the safest nuclear facility in the country, JNFL officials claim.

“Most nuclear power plants in Japan have reinforced walls, but not reinforced ceilings. With the Misawa air base nearby, we sometimes see U.S. jets fly by. So the roof of the reprocessing plant was also reinforced to absorb the sound vibrations,” JNFL spokesman Takeshi Akasaka said of the joint U.S.-Self-Defense Forces air base.

But safety concerns at Rokkasho have long been an issue. Critics say the reprocessing plant is a hodgepodge of different blueprints originally used for reprocessing plants in Europe and that Rokkasho has severe design flaws.

These flaws, they charge, are responsible for the nearly 300 different construction related-problems that have occurred so far, resulting in cost overruns and a delay in the opening of the plant, originally scheduled for 1999.

The latest problem at Rokkasho, which occurred in late July, was not at the reprocessing plant but at an adjacent uranium enrichment center.

Nearly 20 liters of slightly radioactive water leaked out. While JNFL officials claimed the leak did not pose any danger to the local environment, the accident came at a time when they were hoping to begin tests using uranium at the reprocessing plant.

These tests have already been delayed three times this year due to local opposition. Now JNFL says it is hoping to begin testing this fall, possibly in September.

“There have been too many delays already. I am confident it is safe to proceed with testing, and we hope to begin as soon as possible,” said Yuichiro Matsuo, a JNFL managing director.

But an issue that is even more contentious is that of costs.

For years, Japan’s nuclear power industry has justified the high costs of the Rokkasho plant by saying that, once reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel begins, it will prove to be a cheap source of renewable power. Costs for construction of the reprocessing plant, originally estimated at 700 billion yen, have swelled to more than 2.2 trillion yen.

Last month, however, it was learned that the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry had hidden an internal report, compiled in 1994, that showed the true cost of recycling spent nuclear fuel was actually much greater than the cost of burying it.

This revelation came a few months after Kazumasa Kusaka, then director general of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, told lawmakers that Japan had never drawn up cost estimates of not processing fuel.

JNFL’s Matsuo declined comment on the METI report, saying only that there were various ways to calculate costs.

While JNFL officials remain silent, some in the Liberal Democratic Party, which has long supported Japan’s nuclear energy program, are now openly questioning the wisdom of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant.

“The planned operation of the reprocessing plant from 2006 should be halted and an investigation into whether or not the plant is necessary and cost-efficient needs to take place. Once we have those answers, we can have a logical debate and reach a logical conclusion,” LDP member Taro Kono told his supporters in January.

Since then, he has traveled to Rokkasho to speak at an antinuclear rally and remains one of the most vocal critics of the plant among political circles.

The government continues to press forward with its nuclear power plans, but there are signs it is willing to change.

On Tuesday, a subcommittee of the Atomic Energy Commission will begin a cost analysis that finally includes a nonrecycling option. The results of the analysis will be included in the commission’s long-term plan for nuclear power, which will be released next year.

A METI subcommittee is meanwhile putting the finishing touches on a separate report on the operation and maintenance of Japan’s nuclear plants.

The report has been criticized by LDP members like Kono, as well as antinuclear activists.

“The METI report, if approved, will allow electric utilities to pass on to the ratepayer 8.8 trillion yen worth of additional costs for recycling fuel at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant,” Kyoto-based antinuclear activist Aileen Mioko Smith said.

The report, which is currently undergoing public comment, could be completed and form the basis of a METI bill to be submitted to the Diet possibly next month.

One major flaw of the METI report, according to Smith, is that it was prepared under the assumption that the Rokkasho plant would operate at 100 percent capacity.

“There is no example anywhere in the world of any reprocessing plant operating at that capacity,” Smith said.

The METI report also points to other problems for the nuclear fuel reprocessing program, antinuclear critics say.

According to the report, the Rokkasho plant will reprocess 32,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel over a period of 40 years. However, critics say that would be only roughly half the amount of spent fuel Japan’s nuclear plants nationwide are expected to produce over the same period.

Earlier this year, the Federation of Electric Power Companies compiled an estimate that the cost of reprocessing fuel at Rokkasho, including the cost of disposing the radioactive waste, would reach 18.8 trillion yen over 40 years.

But since the Rokkasho plant alone cannot handle all the spent fuel to be produced in Japan and a large amount would still have to be shipped overseas for reprocessing, the overall cost of Japan’s nuclear fuel reprocessing program would be much higher than in the federation estimate, the critics say.

Meanwhile, in Aomori, there are short- and long-term concerns about the future of Rokkasho.

An Aomori prefectural official said on condition of anonymity that public anger over the METI report that was hidden, as well as ongoing safety concerns, have left the prefecture wondering if, and when, the plant will really come into operation.

“There have been so many delays, and so many problems, over the years, and nobody would be surprised if more delays occur. There seems to be a growing debate in the central government about what to do about the Rokkasho reprocessing plant,” the official said.

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