Japan approves 70-year plan to scrap nuclear reprocessing plant


Japan’s nuclear watchdog approved a plan Wednesday to scrap a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant northeast of Tokyo over a 70-year period, with the cost projected at ¥1 trillion ($9 billion).

The facility in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, went into operation in 1977. It was Japan’s first spent-fuel reprocessing plant built under the nation’s nuclear fuel cycle policy, which aims to reprocess all spent nuclear fuel in order to reuse the extracted plutonium and uranium as reactor fuel in the resource-scarce country.

But the policy has run into a dead end as the completion of a separate fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture, built using technological expertise developed through the Tokai plant, has been delayed by more than 20 years.

The decommissioning cost will be shouldered by taxpayers as the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which operates the Tokai plant, is backed by the state. Where to store the waste accumulated at the plant is undecided. In 2014, the agency decided to decommission the plant due to its age and the huge costs of running it under stricter safety rules introduced after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.

According to the plan approved by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, around 310 canisters of highly radioactive, vitrified waste and some 360 cubic meters of radioactive water are currently stored at the facility.

Spending of about ¥770 billion has been estimated for the disposal of such waste and decommissioning of the facility, and roughly ¥217 billion for the 10-year preparation work.

The Tokai facility, which reprocessed a total of 1,140 tons of spent nuclear fuel, has been monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as the extracted plutonium could be repurposed for other uses.

Due to the scrapping of the Tokai plant, the agency has delayed transportation of spent nuclear fuel from its Fugen prototype advanced converter reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, by nine years, to fiscal 2026.

The Tokai facility received some of the fuel from the Fugen reactor, which operated between 1979 and 2003, but destinations for the remaining fuel have yet to be decided. The agency has been looking to transport it overseas.

Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling efforts have not paid off, with the troubled Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor set to be decommissioned over the next 30 years. The reactor in Fukui has barely operated over the past two decades despite the state investing ¥1 trillion.