Since May 2006, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL) has been conducting "active tests" of its Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture. Step 3 of the 5-step tests was completed in April 2007, but in the same month it was discovered that errors in calculations of earthquake resistance had been covered up (NIT 118). The equipment in question included the fuel-shearing machine and spent fuel-handling equipment. As a consequence, the tests were put on hold.
Work to bring the problem equipment up to the required earthquake resistance standards took until August 17 to complete. Soon after the work was completed, on August 31, the governor and the mayor announced their "understanding" for recommencement of the tests and JNFL commenced step 4 forthwith. It is planned that vitrification of high-active liquid waste will be carried out for the first time during the second half of step 4.
JNFL had planned to commence full operation of the plant in November this year. However, due to the revelation of the incorrect earthquake resistance calculation and the time taken to reinforce the equipment, the active tests are running way behind schedule. Hence, the date for commencement of full operations has been pushed back to February 2008. This is the eleventh time the schedule has been revised. Considering the time required for the government's inspection and the various political procedures involved, including those associated with safety agreements with the local and prefectural governments, even this schedule will be very difficult to achieve.
The delays in the commencement of full operations of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant have had a big impact on the finances of Aomori Prefecture and Rokkasho Village. Under Japanese law, if the active tests are not completed and the government's inspection has not been cleared by January 1, the plant, along with its machinery and equipment, is not recognized as an asset for the purposes of taxation under the fixed assets tax. Therefore, the prefecture and the village cannot include fixed assets income from the plant in their 2008 Fiscal Year budgets. The combined lost income for the prefecture and village in FY2008 works out at about 14 billion yen. But the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is supposed to be a huge money-spinner for the local and prefectural governments, so they are under great political pressure to place a higher priority on the income that would be derived by commencing full operations than on the plant's safety.
By Masako Sawai (CNIC)
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