Fuel reprocessing plant in northern Japan delayed again, to 2018

by Mari Yamaguchi


The operator of the nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, is postponing the plant’s opening to as late as September 2018, citing regulators’ lengthy inspection procedures and time needed for safety upgrades.

The plant has raised proliferation concerns because the plutonium it extracts from spent fuel is enough to make thousands of nuclear bombs.

While the delay in opening the facility could temporarily relieve proliferation concerns, it also means spent fuel rods that are filling up storage pools around Japan have nowhere to go.

Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. said it is delaying the targeted completion of the reprocessing plant, which separates plutonium from spent fuel so it can be used in reactors again, by as much as 2½ years. The delay-plagued plant, initially set for launch in 2000, was most recently set to open next March following a series of technical problems.

JNFL President Kenji Kudo told reporters at the company’s headquarters in Aomori on Monday that a separate plant to produce plutonium-based fuel had been delayed until sometime during the first half of fiscal 2019.

Japan already has about 47 tons of plutonium — 11 tons at home and the rest reprocessed in Britain and France — but no use for it, with most of its reactor fleet offline since the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Officials are promoting nuclear restarts in part as a way to burn plutonium and reduce the stockpile.

U.S. officials say Japan’s reprocessing program sets a bad example and could prompt tension in East Asia.

JNFL says around-the-clock surveillance by officials from the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency at the plant will make the illegal removal of any plutonium impossible.

Experts including Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University theoretical physicist and advocate of nonproliferation, have urged Japan to stop spent fuel reprocessing. Von Hippel proposes storing spent fuel in safer and highly protected dry casks instead of uncontained cooling pools as an alternative until a final waste repository is found.