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Uranium trials begin at Rokkasho

Protesting in the snow:
Scenes outside the gates of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (21 Dec. 2004)

Atomic Energy Commission endorses reprocessing
On 12 November 2004 the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) Long Term Nuclear Program Planning Committee (see NIT 101, 103) released an interim report endorsing Japan's existing nuclear fuel cycle policy. A final report is not expected until autumn this year, but the interim report was released as a summary of the committee's deliberations on spent fuel and the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (RRP).

The Committee's main recommendations are as follows:
(1) Aim for the effective use of nuclear fuel resources, at the same time as assuring safety and nuclear non-proliferation. Adopt as a basic policy the reprocessing of spent fuel and effective use of the plutonium and uranium that is extracted.
(2) For the time being, reprocess to the capacity of RRP and place spent fuel in excess of this capacity in interim storage.
(3) Begin consideration of how to deal with the excess spent fuel in 2010, taking into account the track record of RRP and the state of research and development into the fast breeder reactor.
(4) Government and industry to carry out research necessary to respond to future uncertainty.

Translating this into more comprehensible English, of the 1,100 tons of spent fuel produced in Japan's nuclear power plants each year, 800 tons will be reprocessed at Rokkasho and the remainder will be stored in a big interim storage facility. The question of what to do with the excess will be deferred until 2010 and a final decision will be made before RRP is closed down. This scenario is based on the assumption that RRP will commence operations in July 2006 and operate for twenty years at 100% capacity.

Uranium trials begin at Rokkasho
Chemical trials at RPP (using nitric acid etc.), which were carried out after the completion of the construction phase, have been completed. The next stage is uranium trials (using depleted uranium), followed by active trials (using spent fuel), before the scheduled commencement of operations in July 2006. However, with an estimated total cost of construction, operation and dismantling of 11 trillion yen, even supporters of nuclear energy are questioning the wisdom of proceeding with these trials. If the plant is shut down now, the investment to date of 2.44 trillion yen is a sunk cost. However, once uranium trials begin and it becomes radioactively contaminated, the figure being bandied about for disposal costs is 0.45 trillion yen. This increases to 1.55 trillion yen if the plant becomes operational. Large though these figures are, there is no way of guaranteeing that the final costs won't be much greater. In order to avoid these additional costs, and also because of the surplus plutonium that will result from reprocessing, people are calling for the RPP plan to be cancelled.

Cartoon by Shoji Takagi

Nevertheless, following the release of AEC's report, on December 21 Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL) announced that it was commencing the uranium trials. At this stage it has only just begun the preparatory stage in the major buildings. The real trials will begin in February at the earliest. JNFL's plan is to conclude the trials within one year and, after receiving government approval, to then advance to the active trials.

The uranium trials will involve 26 tons of depleted uranium powder in addition to 27 tons of dummy fuel rods. Originally JNFL had planned to use depleted uranium from the uranium enrichment plant on the same property, but the approval procedures were not concluded in time, so in the end it was imported from the US. The schedule is very tight, so the trials will be carried out building by building, process by process. As a consequence, numerous pipes have been set up just for the trials. These will all be removed when the trials are completed.

JNFL claims that the types of problems and accidents anticipated in the trials take into account all the issues that arose at other reprocessing plants - THORP, UP-3 and Tokai. But of course, nobody actually believes this. Rather, if past experience is anything to go by, we would expect unforeseen problems to arise, as well as delays in the schedule.

Masako Sawai (CNIC)

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