Exportation of Radioactive Substances by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA)

By Tamayama Tomoyo (organic farmer, member of the Tamba-Sasayama City Nuclear Disaster Countermeasures Committee)

The White Mesa Mill is the only uranium smeltery that is operating in the U.S. at present. Built at the end of the 1970s, this facility is located near the small town of Blanding, Utah, which is in the area called the Four Corners, where four states, namely Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, meet at one place. Next to the mill is the Ute Mountain Ute Indigenous People’s White Mesa Reservation.

As the reservation is situated right next to the mill, for many years the residents have suffered various kinds of issues, such as an offensive smell, radon gas and other radioactive substances drifting into the reservation from the facility. In particular, the radioactive substances leaking from the mill’s mineral-slag pond and seeping into the underground water veins are causing serious contamination of the drinking water.

Recently, the mill has shifted its business from refining uranium to the production of vanadium used as an additive agent for steelmaking. The main reason for this business shift was the declining price of uranium, increasing cases of closure, shutdown, and temporary suspension of U.S. uranium mines, along with their shrinking mined volumes. As a result, the mill’s operation rate has plunged.

Amid this situation, Energy Fuels Inc. (EF), the owner of the mill, has sought official permission to import uranium ore and its equivalents from JAEA and refine them in the mill. The U.S. firm filed the application with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control in May 2020.

EF’s move, however, drew attention from a local environmental NPO, Grand Canyon Trust, which has pointed out various problems that could occur in conjunction with this action. The mill is located at the foot of Bears Ears National Monument. The area contains a wide array of historic, cultural and natural resources and a coalition of five local Native American tribes have ancestral ties to the region. For this reason, the NPO criticized the transportation of the radioactive substances through the area, saying that it would not only contaminate the natural environment but also desecrate the tribes’ sacred sites. Despite this criticism, the state government’s division granted permission to EF in July with no attached conditions.

The target of this criticism is the transportation to the U.S. mill of radioactive substances with a total weight of 120t stored in Tono Geoscience Center (TGC) in Gifu Prefecture, and Ningyo-toge Environmental Engineering Center (NEEC) in Okayama Prefecture. The radioactive substances include uranium produced mainly in foreign countries, ion-exchange resin with absorbed uranium, activated carbon, solid processed wastes and so on.

In addition to this project, EF also plans to accept similar substances from Estonia in northern Europe, and the residents of Utah are worried about the possibility of the mill becoming the final disposal site of this kind of low-level radioactive wastes from overseas. Their concerns are quite reasonable because more than 99% of the low-level radioactive substances from overseas will eventually be stored on the premises of the mill.

This was not the first time that JAEA has transported radioactive waste to the Utah mill for processing. In 2005, around 500 tons of uranium-containing leftover soil and other types of radioactive substances from NEEC were shipped from Kobe Port in Hyogo Prefecture to the mill, (see NIT No. 107) approximately 660 million yen in public funds being paid for the overseas processing. At that time, the price of one pound of uranium was about $30. The mill accepted the uranium-containing radioactive waste apparently because it was more profitable than processing ordinary uranium ore. In fact, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on September 16, 2020 that the mill’s annual sales from the ‘recycling business’ total $5 -15 million, according to its CEO.

 On December 3, 2020 I attended an interview with officials of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and JAEA. In this interview, which was set up with the cooperation of Miyakawa Shin, a Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan member of the House of Representatives, the officials all stressed that this transportation of radioactive waste was aimed at making effective use of natural resources.

Despite the officials’ insistence, the main point of the contract was nothing but the transfer of ownership of JAEA’s radioactive waste to the U.S. mill without payment. Or rather, it was JAEA’s transfer of ownership and management responsibility of the radioactive waste to the mill by paying the processing costs and transportation fees.

On the premises of JAEA’s TGC and NEEC centers, there are radiation controlled areas, and if some of the radioactive substances that should be transferred to other places are remaining in such areas, it could hamper the decommissioning process of the facilities. This may be JAEA’s real motive behind the exportation of the radioactive waste.

Of all kinds of radioactive waste that will be shipped to the U.S. mill this time, ion exchange resin, which is treated as a uranium equivalent, in particular, needs to be buried at medium depth of 50-100 meters underground when disposed of. Since the smeltery in Tokai Village in Ibaraki Prefecture terminated operation in 1969, there is no facility capable of smelting uranium resources in this country. If JAEA sticks to its policy of “effective use of such resources,” there’s no choice but to transport and smelt them overseas.

In the interview mentioned above, the officials of MEXT and JAEA said they were currently investigating all possibilities. Their comment, however, sounds empty.

At present, I am demanding that JAEA disclose information on its contract with the U.S. mill, but it has not complied with my request, saying it has yet to conclude a formal contract with the U.S. firm. The minutes of the eighth technological study meeting on the Tono Mine closure, held on February 7, 2020, stated that the removal measures for the uranium ore and other substances in the facility will be conducted according to JAEA’s four-year plan. In 2022, the uranium ore and other substances are due to be transported to an overseas smeltery, and in the final year, 2023, they will be smelted there, thus completing the planned measures, the minutes said.

To confirm this plan, I have contacted JAEA, but an official there replied that the procedures being taken are not necessarily in accordance with the four-year-plan. In spite of this ambiguous reply, I felt it was certain that JAEA had made its utmost efforts to achieve the plan before the U.S. media disclosed it to the public. Although the JAEA official said the organization would seek consent from local residents before carrying out the plan, it is hardly possible for me to believe this statement. In the first place, does JAEA have any other options left open?

 JAEA already sent a 28-kilogram sample of uranium equivalents to EF in 2016 and at that time, it asked the U.S. company if the firm was required to obtain a new license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for accepting the sample. In May last year, EF reported to JAEA that the existing license is suitable for filing an application with the Utah State government. Taking these moves into consideration, who would think that JAEA is still studying feasibilities of the transportation plan?

The main reason why JAEA wants to push ahead with the transportation of the uranium-containing waste to the U.S. is the disposal cost of the waste. There are no facilities for smelting or disposing of the waste in Japan. Moreover, it would be totally impossible for JAEA to build such facilities easily in some place after winning approval from local residents. Even the local governments of Tottori and Okayama Prefectures, Kagamino Town in Okayama Prefecture, Gifu Prefecture and Toki City in Gifu Prefecture, where JAEA’s facilities are located, say it would be difficult to accept the existing radioactive waste.

Under these circumstances, it would be impossible for JAEA to remove more than 10 thousand tons or 100 thousand tons of radioactive waste from its facilities and transport them to other places. Considering this, its project to force the U.S. smeltery to accept the waste by paying more than one-hundred million yen looks like a very cheap and speedy way of disposing of the waste. What’s more, there is no need for JAEA to disclose that this is an unconventional way of discarding such waste as long as it maintains that the transportation of the waste is aimed at the reuse of natural resources.

 Yet, this is nothing but exportation of environmental pollution. The radioactive waste is useless and cannot be exported unless JAEA insists that it is a natural resource. If it is stored in Japan, it is bound to become industrial waste. JAEA is pretending that the radioactive wastes are valuable. But far from selling the substances to the U.S. mill, JAEA is actually willing to pay money to EF and force the company to accept the waste. This is cheating.

Both JAEA and EF are standing firm on their position that the transportation of the radioactive waste will not cause any problems as long as it is carried out while observing laws and regulations. Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and other international organizations in Japan have formulated their own Guidelines for Environmental and Social Considerations (provisional name). JAEA, however, does not have such guidelines, and has no consideration for the anxiety of the local residents in the U.S. JAEA’s move to conduct the transportation by thinking of its own convenience alone is highly unscrupulous, and could result in an international dispute. Should JAEA carry out the transportation without explaining what they are doing to the residents of Ningyo-toge and Tono before winning their consent, mutual trust will be damaged. This may hamper JAEA’s efforts to complete the procedures for shutting down its mines.

JAEA’s FY2021 budget for decommissioning measures and for research and development into disposal and processing methods for radioactive waste was raised to 25.7 billion yen from 22.9 billion yen in the previous year. Of this budget, how much money will be allocated for each project to transport and smelt the radioactive waste? And if JAEA plans to carry out similar projects in the future, these should be made public.

If JAEA exports the uranium-containing substances not as resources but as radioactive waste, it may violate the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Act, the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, and other related regulations. The law on nuclear reactors, however, stipulates that radioactive substances are not treated as nuclear waste, unless they were “discarded” by the operator of a nuclear facility.

When JAEA exported such substances in 2005, they claimed that the substances were mineraloid, and this time they maintain that the substances are uranium ores in order to implement the transportation by circumventing the laws. Although JAEA contends that the transportation of the radioactive substances overseas is an appropriate action because they are abiding by all relevant laws and regulations and are observing legal compliance, it is a far-fetched argument.

JAEA, a public organization, may take part in destruction of the sacred sites of U.S. indigenous people and their natural environment through the use of Japan’s public funds. Local communities may blame JAEA for such conduct, and this may bring grave consequences. JAEA must therefore recognize that this is an extremely serious matter.

I hope that local citizens will also stand up and protest against this transportation by JAEA.

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