Storing Nuclear Waste is Nightmare as Japan Prepares for Its First Import of Radioactive Waste Since Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

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The vessel Pacific Grebe set sail Aug. 3 to Japan from Britain with more than 30 metric tons of radioactive waste on board. The cargo, Japanese spent fuel reprocessed in the U.K., is returning sealed in 76 stainless steel canisters packed into 130-ton containers.

Japan is preparing to receive its first import of highly radioactive waste since March, when an earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

It will arrive early next month at the Mutsu-Ogawara port in northern Honshu for delivery to Japan Nuclear Fuel’s nearby Rokkasho storage site.

The Pacific Grebe cargo is the second of 11 that will return a total of 900 canisters of waste, each weighing about 400 kilograms.

About 400 kilometers south of the port, thousands of workers are struggling to contain radiation leaks from the meltdown of three reactors at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. plant, which amounts to 300 tons of waste.

Japan won’t have a permanent site operational until the 2040’s, according to Yuichiro Akashi, a spokesman for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan.

“It’s a tough situation considering how long it takes to build one,” Akashi said. “A final repository is something we can’t do without so the work will continue.”

Meantime, radioactive waste is piling up and Rokkasho’s storage space for spent nuclear fuel is more than 90 percent full; it has capacity for 3,000 tons and contains 2,834 tons, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. spokesman Hirotake Tatehana said.

Rokkasho, three kilometers from the Pacific coast in Aomori prefecture, stores two main types of waste: spent fuel from reactors, and what’s left over after spent fuel is processed to extract uranium and plutonium for reuse.

The latter is what’s arriving on the Pacific Grebe.

Japan contracted the U.K. and France to process its fuel in the 1970s and the waste from the procedure is shipped back for storage.

Japan is now building its own spent fuel processing plant at Rokkasho.

For waste from processed spent fuel, Rokkasho can hold 2,880 canisters and has reserve capacity for another 3,000, said Tatehana.

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Before Fukushima, Japan’s 54 reactors produced 1,000 tons of spent fuel a year, which after processing would fill Rokkasho’s capacity within four years, according to Bloomberg News calculations.

One ton of spent fuel creates one canister of waste, said Joonhong Ahn, a professor in the nuclear engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Japan’s response to the storage space dilemma for spent fuel is the same as the U.S., which is to keep it in reactor buildings.

“Japan has 1,000 tons of spent fuel coming out of reactors every year, and there are 7 more years before the spent fuel pools are filled,” said Taro Kono, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and opponent of nuclear power.

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Tokyo Electric Power Co. is building a facility that will give us another 5 years, so after 12 years we have no place to put spent fuel,” said Kono.

“At that point nuclear reactors will be shut because there’s no place for the fuel.”

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Source: www.bloomberg.com, via @buhi_2

Construction of the Tokyo Electric storage site in Mutsu city, about 40 kilometers north of Rokkasho, has been suspended since the Fukushima disaster.

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Japan’s Rokkasho isn’t designated as a permanent storage site for nuclear waste — despite costing almost 3 trillion yen ($39 billion) to build its five facilities on 740 hectares (1,828 acres) and having 2,450 staff on site.

The nuclear reprocessing plant has an annual capacity of 800 tons of uranium or 8 tons of plutonium, and is owned by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited located in the village of Rokkasho in northeast Aomori PrefectureJapan approximately 17 miles (27 kilometers) north of the US Air Force‘s Misawa Air Base.

Since 1993 there has been US$ 20 billion invested in the project, nearly triple the original cost estimate.

It is the successor to a smaller reprocessing plant located in Tōkai, Ibaraki.

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After the Tōhoku earthquake in March 2011, the plant ran on emergency power provided by backup diesel generators.

 The emergency generators were not intended for long-term use.

Reportedly there are about 3,000 tons of highly radioactive used nuclear fuel stored in Rokkasho at current, that could overheat and catch fire if the cooling systems fail.

Japanese radio reported on March 13 that 600 liters of water leaked at the Rokkasho spent fuel pool.

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The economy of Rokkasho has traditionally been dependent on agriculture and commercial fishing. From the 1980s onwards, the village has become a center for various energy developments, which now dominate the local economy

Nuclear industry

Nuclear fuel cycle related facilities:

The Japan Atomic Energy Agency also has multiple facilities at the site.

Since the 1970s local opposition to plans to operate Japan’s first large commercial plutonium plant at Rokkasho have focused on the threat of a large-scale release of radioactivity.

During the 1990s anti-nuclear groups in Japan released studies showing the risks of routine operation of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant.

The facility in full operation is designed to separate as much as 8 tons of plutonium each year from spent reactor fuel from Japan’s domestic nuclear reactors.

As of 2006 Japan owned approximately 45 tons of separated plutonium.

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Source: www.bloomberg.com, via @buhi_2
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