New Moves Emerging on Disposal of Disused Equipment from Decommissioned Nuclear Power Plants

By Sueda Kazuhide  (Kansai Campaign Against Nuclear Waste)

With the arrival of the age of decommissioning of Japanese nuclear power plants (NPPs), an increasing number of nuclear plant operators have launched dismantling and disposal operations in their decommissioned plants. If you imagine that facilities will return to vacant lots after the disposal operations, that would be far from reality. The most likely scenario is that they will become storage sites for disused equipment and radioactive waste that have nowhere else to go.

An anti-nuclear group comprised of citizens of Fukui Prefecture has set up a committee to discuss problems involving decommissioning of NPPs, and this writer participated in the committee. The committee has recommended that the NPP operators suspend the dismantling and disposal operations promptly, and encase and manage the disused reactors intact and safely for at least 100 years.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the electric power companies are seeking ways to dispose of the radioactive equipment and waste from decommissioned NPPs. One of the options they are considering is overseas disposal for large low-level radioactive equipment, such as steam generators and feed-water heaters, as well as nuclear fuel storage and shipping casks. The large equipment seems to correspond to the L2 or L3 categories of low-level radioactive waste.* While the processing and disposal of nuclear waste is still uncertain in Japan, there are some private companies engaged in such businesses in the U.S. and Sweden.

In the Sixth Strategic Energy Plan, approved by the Cabinet recently, it was stipulated that NPP operators should make the most of accumulated achievements and advanced technology of disposal business operators overseas when carrying out their clearance operations. Concerning the disposal of large low-level radioactive equipment, which is difficult to carry out in appropriate and reasonable ways in Japan, the plan stated that the government will review the export regulations by taking into consideration the relevant international treaties and example cases of the reuse of such equipment overseas, in order to allow export of such components as exceptional cases when certain conditions are met. The conditions are, for example, that the importing nation gives its consent to the trade and gives an assurance that the equipment will be safely recycled as useful resources. Under the current circumstances, however, the export management regulations based on the Foreign Exchange Law do not allow export of radioactive waste in principle. The government therefore intends to ease such regulations.  

Although the export of large radioactive equipment is allowed only after the NPP operator obtains consent from the importing country, the question is whether or not the opinions of the local residents in the area where the melting facility for recycling such equipment is located are reflected in the decision.

The Energy Solutions’ Bear Creek Processing Facility is located near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Before World War II, the uranium for the atomic bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was enriched in the K-25 site about one kilometre north of the Bear Creek facility. Due to disorderly operations and sloppy disposal of radioactive waste, the area became one of the most contaminated areas in the world. There are a number of reports on the health hazards suffered by local residents.

Even if the Bear Creek facility had nothing to do with the radioactive contamination of the area, is it permissible for Japan to conduct processing of radioactive waste from its NPPs in such a questionable area?


Consideration of a central disposal system that makes nonsense of the cut-off system

Energy Solutions is receiving contracts for dismantling decommissioned nuclear power plants. It is said to be engaged in the treatment of radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, and also part of the dismantling operation of Unit 1 of Tsuruga Nuclear Power Station.

The Fukui prefectural government has a strong intention to promote the NPP decommissioning business.  Its “Reinan E. Coast Plan,” formulated in March 2020, contains “development of the NPP decommissioning business” in its basic strategy list, along with “promotion of nuclear-related research and human resource development,” “promotion of local businesses that utilize various types of energy,” and “development of various kinds of local industries.”

Under this strategy, the prefectural government plans to promote two projects, “participation of local businesses in the decommissioning and related operations, and the expansion of supply of their products and technology to such operations,” and “the promotion of reuse of radioactive waste from decommissioned nuclear plants and creation of local decommissioning business.”

On November 22, 2021, the conference for promoting the Reinan E. Coast plan was held, with the Fukui prefectural governor and business leaders, including the presidents of Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO), the Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC), and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) taking part.

At this conference, an interim report was presented on the business for recycling radioactive equipment from decommissioned NPPs.  In Fukui Prefecture, decommissioning operations are currently being implemented at the Tsuruga, Mihama and Ohi NPPs, in addition to the Fugen and the Monju NPPs in Tsuruga. Due to this situation, the plant operators are studying the feasibility of setting up a consortium that will operate a collectively-controlled clearance (CL) facility for low-level radioactive waste from their decommissioned NPPs.

The order of the clearance process is 1) unpacking and sorting, which means separation of low-level radioactive waste from other things that should be disposed of, 2) chopping into smaller pieces and decontamination, and then usually comes 4) clearance inspection. In Case E, 3) the melting process is conducted before the inspection.

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The interim report says that if the inspection is conducted after the radioactive waste was processed into a solid mass, it can be done more efficiently, enabling the consortium to receive more orders for the clearance of radioactive waste. According to their estimate, the earnings forecast for Case C over the 25-year business operation period is minus 5.5 billion yen and that of Case D is minus one billion yen, while that of Case E is plus 3.5 billion yen. Based on these data, the consortium concluded that Case E is the most sustainable business model. The demerits of Case E, however, are that it has no precedent and that it may fall into the category of a specified waste management facility. This means that official permission is necessary for implementing Case E, but the consortium may not be able to obtain this. Another risk is the massive amount of investment of about 10 billion yen in equipment in the initial stage. These demerits indicate that the outlook for this business model is considerably uncertain.

Because of the demerits, the report said that there is a possibility for the consortium to expand the clearance facility’s business gradually from Case A, Case C, or Case D. Moreover, the report said the consortium will add large-scale radioactive waste, which has yet to become the target of clearance business in Japan, such as steam generators and turbines, to the list of the disused equipment that would be handled by the clearance facility when their business gets underway. By doing this, the report said, the consortium may expand their business in stages.

This clearance business, however, may cause some problems. If the radioactive equipment is melted before the inspection, its radioactive contamination level may be lowered by melting, and the recycled items produced from the inspected equipment may be released to the community.  If the radioactive equipment contains radioactive substances that have a low boiling point, they may move into the exhaust gas while melting, and pollute the natural environment around the melting facility.

The question is whether or not the exhaust ventilation filters and the residue from the melting should be handled as radioactive waste, and who is responsible for the disposal of the filter and the residue. Is the consortium responsible for it or does it become the responsibility of the relevant electric power company?

In the case of shipment of the low-level radioactive equipment before the inspection, it should be transported as radioactive material. If the size of the equipment is larger than the designated level, it cannot be loaded into a container. The same problem emerges in the above-mentioned case of overseas disposal of large-scale steel waste.

 The 2018 version of IAEA’s transport regulations of dangerous goods has a new rule on large-scale materials with surfaces contaminated with radioactive substances and that cannot be stored in a container. In accordance with this rule, Energy Solutions is transporting its large low-level radioactive waste, such as steam generators, on a trailer truck without any covering over the equipment. Such photos are used in company brochures, etc.

This new IAEA rule has yet to be reflected in Japan’s transport regulations for dangerous goods. For this reason, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) says it is examining each case of such transportation by checking whether the necessary measures are taken to ensure safety during transportation, and granting permission independently of existing regulations.

The Federation of Electric Power Companies maintains that the NRA’s inspection system of checking each shipment separately is inefficient, and calls on the government to include the revised IAEA rule in the domestic regulations. At the same time, the organization requests that the government clarify the rules on the radioactive waste produced from outsourced disposal of radioactive waste.

 The Fukui prefectural government plans to set up a task force comprised of prefectural officials and electric power companies, to discuss their consortium’s technical problems and its organizational structure. In addition, it plans to formulate a conceptual design for the centralized nuclear waste processing facility during the next fiscal year.

In view of this situation, we need to continue to keep a close eye on the moves of NPP operators.

*In Japan, all radioactive waste that is not classified as ‘high-level’ is ‘low-level’ radioactive waste. Within ‘low-level’ there were three levels: L1 must be disposed of deep underground, L2 must be disposed of in a shallow concrete pit and L3 radioactive wastes can be disposed of without a pit. These radioactive waste regulations have been removed and all ‘low-level radioactive waste’ is now reclassified as ‘CL’

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