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News Watch 109

(November/December 2005)

Japan and internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle

Uranium contaminated soil shipped to US

Projects for ITER-related facilities decided

Agreement for Spent Fuel Interim Storage Facility signed

Japan and internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle

An agency of the Ministry for Economics Trade and Industry held a meeting on October 25th to discuss how Japan might cooperate with proposals to internationalize the nuclear fuel cycle. Among the options considered were the possibility of enriching uranium and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel for other countries.

Previously the Japanese government had not been supportive of proposals to internationalize the nuclear fuel cycle. It was afraid of restrictions being placed on the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (RRP). A proposal made by Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, included a call for a moratorium on such facilities. However, now the government is concerned that if it does not make a concrete proposal of its own, it might end up being lumped with all the other non-nuclear weapon states and be subject to the same restrictions as them in regard to uranium enrichment and reprocessing.

The government's recent expression of interest in internationalizing the fuel cycle is an attempt to deflect criticisms that RRP will have a negative impact on the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The cynicism of the move is obvious, because Japan will not have the capacity to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel for other countries for the foreseeable future. The uranium enrichment plant in Rokkasho has been plagued by problems and is now only able to meet 10% of Japan's own needs. Extensions are planned, with a suggested start-up date of 2010, but nothing concrete has emerged so far. As for RRP, at most it will be able to reprocess only 80% of the spent fuel from Japan's own nuclear power plants. The government has in mind a second reprocessing plant, which might also be able to reprocess foreign spent fuel. However, no mention was made of a second reprocessing plant in the new nuclear energy policy adopted by the government on October 14th. If a second plant is to be built, planning won't begin until 2010 and it is unlikely to be operational until decades hence.

Uranium contaminated soil shipped to US

On October 3rd the newly formed Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) shipped 290 cubic meters of uranium contaminated soil (left at Ningyo Toge after uranium mining operations in the 50s and 60s) to Seattle (see NIT 107). From there it was transported by truck to International Uranium Corp.'s (IUC) White Mesa uranium mill in Utah.

By redefining the soil as 'uranium ore', a radioactive waste headache for JAEA was transformed into a money-spinner for IUC. Not that there will be any profits from the sale of the milled uranium. The ore grade is a mere 0.03% and at current prices the small quantity of uranium extracted would only fetch about $10,000. This money must then be refunded to JAEA. Rather, IUC's profits will come from the fee it is charging for sample analysis and milling. Although the figure is not public, the total cost to JAEA for this operation is believed to be around 660 million yen.

As predicted, there was considerable opposition from Utah residents when they found out that they were the unlucky recipients. The White Mesa mill is located on Indian land and local Indians immediately expressed their opposition, citing the decades of havoc wreaked on their communities by uranium mining and milling.

The Utah government has previously claimed that IUC's operations were 'sham disposal'. Now the people of Utah are concerned that their state is becoming a dumping ground for uranium waste from around the world. For their sake, we hope that the publicity generated by this case will arrest the trend. Which leaves the question of what will be done with the rest of JAEA's uranium contaminated soil.

Projects for ITER-related facilities decided

On June 28th Cadarache in France was selected as the site for the international thermonuclear experimental reactor (ITER). At the same time it was decided that related facilities would be built in Japan. On October 12th, the governor of Aomori Prefecture announced that he would accept facilities at Rokkasho Village. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), which has been examining what kind of facilities will be built, has chosen three candidate projects and sites and is expected to make an official proposal to the EU in the near future.

The three candidate projects and sites are as follows:

  1. an international thermonuclear energy research center (Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture), which will be composed of a research and development coordination center, an ITER remote experimental center and a thermonuclear computation center
  2. a satellite Tokamak (Naka City, Ibaraki Prefecture): modification of JAEA Tokamak-60 (JT-60); and
  3. engineering design activities for international thermonuclear material irradiation facilities (Rokkasho): this would be implemented only when participation in irradiation experiments is secured, as there is a possibility that the facility itself will be built in another country.

Agreement for Spent Fuel Interim Storage Facility signed

Tokyo Electric Power Co. Ltd. (TEPCO) and Japan Atomic Power Co., Ltd. (JAPC) plan to jointly construct a spent fuel interim storage facility in Mutsu City, Aomori Prefecture. Mutsu City has been very positive about the facility, but Aomori Prefecture had adopted a more cautious attitude. However, Aomori governor, Shingo Mimura, held a press conference on October 19th and officially announced that he would accept the facility. He indicated that he had confirmed in a series of meetings with the government and power company officials that the spent fuel would definitely be removed from the intermediate storage facility. On the same day a site agreement was signed by the four parties involved: Aomori Prefecture, Mutsu City, TEPCO and JAPC. The agreement contains a promise that after a 50-year period of intermediate storage the spent fuel will be removed.

According to the agreement, the capacity of the storage facility is 5,000 tonU. It is scheduled to start operation in 2010.

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