Post-Fukushima Japan resumes work on nuclear fuel facility in Aomori Prefeture

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Recyclable-Fuel Storage Co., a company set up by Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Japan Atomic Power Co., said Friday it has resumed constructing a facility to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel in Japan.  Construction of the Tokyo Electric storage site in Mutsu city, about 40 kilometers north of Rokkasho, has been suspended since the Fukushima disaster.  In the Japanese context, “temporary storage” for spent fuels means the temporary storage space used before the fuel reprocessing to extract plutonium.   The city of Mutsu is also the location for various facilities of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.   The company had been constructing a nuclear power plant in the town of Oma and a temporary storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in the city of Mutsu, and now plans to postpone the start of operations at the facility to October 2013 from July 2012.

The Aomori Research and Development Center is spread out over Rokkasho, Aomori and Mutsu, Aomori.  Mutsu city is located in the northern part of Aomori Prefecture. The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is 40 km south from the city.   The construction of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant has been plagued with delays and the permission for adding the second reprocessing plant will not be given in the foreseeable future. Japan’s Rokkasho isn’t designated as a permanent storage site for nuclear waste — despite costing almost 3 trillion yen.  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.  Reprocessing at Rokkasho has been delayed 18 times since 1997 according to Japan Nuclear Fuel.

Experiments for the Rokkasho plant’s completion have been suspended since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima Prefecture. Rokkasho 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.  NISA doesn’t plan to link authorizing the plant’s operation to the results of the new safety tests. The facilities’ operators will evaluate the extent to which key installations can withstand extreme natural events. Their reports will be checked by the new nuclear safety agency to be launched in April.

Last November, TEPCO released a report detaling how they have managed to store more than 10,000 fuel assemblies at the cooling ponds at Fukushima Daiichi as part of a program to consolidate spent fuel elements before putting them in a prospective interim storage facility in Mutsu, Japan.  The Mutsu facility is designed to store spent nuclear fuel in above-ground storage for up to 50 years before it is reprocessed. Japan’s nuclear waste management policy is unsustainable and in deep trouble because it is dependent on reprocessing with no alternative plan formulated.  Reprocessing is a method of chemically extracting plutonium and unused uranium from spent nuclear fuel.  Spent fuel generated in Japan is expected to exceed the capacity of Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.’s reprocessing plant in the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture.

Since plutonium is nuclear weapons capable material, it cannot be stockpiled. With insufficient demand for the plutonium either for fast breeder reactor fuel or as MOX fuel for conventional nuclear power plants, pressure is certain to mount against continued reprocessing.  Reprocessing increases the volume of nuclear waste which must be stored. The increase occurs because the chemicals process for separating the plutonium, uranium, and HLW from spent nuclear fuel generates much greater volumes of waste than the original volume of the spent nuclear fuel. Although most of the radioactivity is concentrated in the high level waste, reprocessing is responsible for a substantial increase in the total volume of low and intermediate level waste which must then be dealt with.

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. The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant could handle 800 tons per year at best, meaning that the plant was never capable reprocessing all the nation’s produced spent fuels. Therefore, the government says that the storage facility will be constructed to store the spent fuels for several tens of years (40 to 50 years) until they are ready to be reprocessed.

Aomori Prefecture is concerned that without a final repository site selected and without the implementation of the pluthermal program, it will become the final de-facto repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. In turn, local sites being targeted for interim storage are concerned that if reprocessing at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori does not go forward as planned, they in turn may become a de-facto waste dump because the spent fuel stored at their sites would not be able to be shipped to Rokkasho. One study estimates that Mutsu city could receive a subsidy of approximately 12.9 billion yen in exchange for accepting nuclear fuel for next 60 years.  The spent nuclear fuel is stored in metal casks, using a dry storage method. The casks will be shipped directly from TEPCO’s reactor sites to the port of Mutsu.

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