CNIC Statement: Retract the Approval of the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility “Draft Review” – The Government should implement a fundamental rethink of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy

Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center Statement, May 13, 2020

On May 13, 2020, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) approved the “Draft Review” that considers the Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNF) Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility located in Rokkasho Village, Aomori Prefecture, to be compliant with the new regulatory standards. It is totally deplorable that that this decision has been taken while COVID-19 infection is spreading in Japan.

If the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility (Rokkasho NFRF) is operated, it will process an annual maximum of 800 tons of spent fuel, separating 7 to 8 tons of plutonium (sufficient for around 1,000 nuclear warheads) and is, at the same time, an extremely problematic facility that even during normal operation will release large volumes of radioactive materials in the form of gasses and liquids.

At the dawn of the nuclear age in the 1950s, it was reprocessing plants and fast breeder reactors that were thought to be the energy of the future. However, it became clear several decades ago that reprocessing was meaningless. As the development of the fast breeder reactor failed and it was realized that uranium resources were far more abundant than first assumed, and that therefore the need to use plutonium as a fuel became unnecessary, reprocessing plants lost their raison d’être. Thus, reprocessing no longer makes any economic sense. Furthermore, the proliferation of reprocessing technology, as became clear in nuclear testing by India, leads to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In 2018, the Japanese government announced its “Fundamental Thinking on Plutonium Use in Japan.” This document mainly indicated the policy to reduce Japan’s stocks of plutonium by the use of plutonium as MOX fuel in the pluthermal program, reprocessing only the amount of plutonium necessary to implement that program. This was in response to both domestic and international suspicions concerning the constant increase in Japan’s plutonium stocks. The pluthermal program, however, fell drastically below the 16 to 18 reactor estimate proposed in 2010. Only four reactors out of those restarted after the Tokyo Electric Power Company Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (TEPCO FDNPS) accident have implemented the pluthermal program, consuming roughly two tons of plutonium. At the same time, according to the operation plan submitted by JNF, the amount of spent fuel reprocessed at Rokkasho NFRF would reach an annual maximum of 800 tons several years after operations begin, and would continue to operate at 800 tons/year thereafter.

Moreover, during normal operations, Rokkasho NFRF will release large volumes of radioactive materials into the sea and atmosphere. This volume far exceeds that normally released by nuclear power plants. It is said that the annual exposure dose would be much lower than one millisievert, but taking the noble gas krypton-85 as an example, the annual release would be around twice that of the noble gasses released at the time of the Three Mile Island accident, in which a reactor experienced a core meltdown. Releases of tritium, as another example, would amount to ten times the annual volume released to the ocean by Japan when 54 reactors were operating. There is concern that if there should be a severe accident, radioactive releases would far exceed those expected from an accident involving a normal nuclear reactor.

As a result of the accident at TEPCO FDNPS, large volumes of contaminated water processed by the ALPS system still remain in storage on the site. Over the last six years and more, deliberations have been held in government councils and public hearings have been held several times on how to handle this water. Meanwhile, the fact that Rokkasho NFRF would release ten times the amount of tritium stored at FDNPS each year has received absolutely no attention in the discussions, indicating the continuation of an extremely uneven consideration for such releases.

The nuclear fuel cycle policy has thus far cost a total of 13.9 trillion yen for Rokkasho NFRF, which rises to well over 16 trillion yen if the MOX fuel plant that is being constructed in the same Rokkasho Village is included. The government is also proposing to build a second reprocessing plant, and if the cost for this is also included the total is tantamount to a massive project whose total costs exceed 30 trillion yen. In the first place, prior to proceeding with the construction and operation of Rokkasho NFRF, there should have been inclusive and careful discussions held with the many stakeholders involved. In fact, however, during this time discussions have proceeded on the basis of the single point that this is “national policy.” The costs have been levied from electricity users through their inclusion in electricity bills, and while surrounding residents have suffered from releases of radioactive materials, Japan, the only country to suffer an atomic attack in war, has increased the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation through the use of plutonium, the raw material for nuclear weapons.

If the NRA is to approve the Rokkasho NFRF radiation management target values, at the very least it should engage in discussions with diverse stakeholders that are equivalent to those implemented for FDNPS regarding the release of radioactive materials to the ocean and atmosphere. Further, if it is to approve the operation plan, NRA should submit a concrete plutonium consumption plan in accordance with the amounts of plutonium that is expected to be separated. If the NRA insists on approving the operation plan without the consumption plan, a discrepancy will arise with the policy determined by the government and it will become impossible to assuage domestic and international suspicions over plutonium stocks.

Furthermore, the government, should accept that the nuclear fuel cycle has failed and should withdraw from it. Measures to prolong the life of the reprocessing program not only burden the Japanese people with unnecessary costs, they also lead to avoidable releases of radioactive materials through operation of the reprocessing facility as well as additional issues associated with the consumption of the separated plutonium.

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