The first shipment of high-level radioactive waste (HLW) from the UK arrived in Rokkasho Mutsu-Ogawara Port, Aomori Prefecture on March 9. The shipment left the port of Barrow on January 21, UK time (January 22 Japan time). It was the first repatriation of any category of foreign waste to overseas customers from the UK and was some 15 years later than originally projected. The ship, the Pacific Sandpiper, passed through the Panama Canal early February.
Details of the shipment
A total of 28 vitrified HLW waste canisters, each weighing about 500kg, were shipped on this occasion. They were packed into a single 98-ton (113.5 ton loaded) TN28VT transport cask (also referred to as a 'flask').
Seven canisters each belong to Tokyo Electric Power Company, Kansai Electric Power Company, Shikoku Electric Power Company and Kyushu Electric Power Company. They were produced at the THORP reprocessing plant in Sellafield, UK. The nine Japanese electric power companies which operate nuclear power plants as well as electricity wholesaler Japan Atomic Power Company signed contracts with France's AREVA (formerly Cogema) and the UK's NDA (formerly BNFL) to reprocess1 their spent nuclear fuel. The contracts covered a total of 7,100 tons of spent fuel.
All Japanese HLW produced in France was sealed in 1,310 canisters and returned to Japan in twelve shipments between April 1995 and March 2007. Only one cask was loaded on this first shipment from the UK, but the quantity will increase in future shipments. Progressively larger quantities were loaded onto shipments from France. The largest quantity shipped at one time was 12 casks containing a total of 164 HLW canisters.
Approximately 920 canisters of HLW will be shipped from the UK to Japan over a period of ten years. Japan's power companies will receive around 850 canisters of HLW directly resulting from their reprocessing contracts. Additionally, in place of low- and intermediate-level waste resulting from reprocessing of Japan's spent fuel, under a 2004 agreement a 'radiologically equivalent' quantity of HLW will be shipped to Japan. This amounts to about 70 canisters.2 Significantly larger volumes of intermediate and low-level wastes, for which these canisters were substituted, must be disposed of in the UK. So far no such substitution agreement has been made with France.
The HLW that was returned from France is now stored in the Vitrified Waste Storage Center on the site of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture. The HLW from the UK is destined for the same interim storage site. Under an agreement with Aomori Prefecture, HLW may be stored in this facility for a maximum of 50 years from the time it is deposited there. No final disposal site for Japan's HLW has been chosen and there is no indication that a suitable site will be found any time soon.
Shipment safety and security problems
Many problems have been identified with shipping HLW in general, and with this shipment in particular. The UK's Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) issued a media release on January 25, 2010 in which it raised the following concerns about the condition of the Pacific Sandpiper.
"The Pacific Sandpiper is now the oldest member of the PNTL fleet, it and its predecessors, were designed in the 1970s and have been shown to be susceptible to run away corrosion problems which has caused premature decommissioning of the earlier, older vessels.
The Pacific Sandpiper has recently been issued with three Statutory Memos demanding the completion of work related to crew safety, Emergency Towing Procedures, and engine room fire extinguishing systems. The available evidence implies that this work has not yet been carried out.
During recent Port State Control Inspections in Europe and Japan, the Pacific Sandpiper has been shown to have a number of deficiencies including Fire Safety measures.
The Asia Pacific Port State Control Inspection (PSCI) organisation's website currently reports that the Pacific Sandpiper has a Target Factor of 81 and a High Risk Level."3
Independent marine pollution consultant Tim Deere-Jones produced a detailed briefing on nuclear material shipments over the Irish Sea for the NFLA.4 In addition to identifying the run-away corrosion problem, he pointed out several weaknesses with the double hulling of the vessels and showed that PNTL's claims that its ships are collision-resistant are not credible.
To bring these concerns into perspective, it is important to bear in mind that there have been many accidents involving shipments of radioactive substances. According to Deere-Jones, 20 accidents/incidents were recorded in the decade 1991 to 2000 involving INF Class 2 and INF Class 3 shipments5. These included fires and collisions in harbor. The following quote from a letter written in 1997 by the late Paul Leventhal, former President of the US-based Nuclear Control Institute, is a particularly sobering warning against complacency.
"The hazards of shipping radioactive material by sea are very real. Last month, a container ship carrying highly radioactive cesium was split in two in a storm in the Atlantic Ocean. The fore section went to the bottom with its cesium packages. French regulatory authorities acknowledged the cesium containers would rupture at 3,000 meters, the depth at which the wreckage finally came to rest, but also announced they would not salvage the radioactive cargo. Lloyd's List, a shipping-trade newspaper, editorialized that the sinking of the ship, the MSC Carla, is 'a stark reminder of what can be done by the sheer force of the elements upon a ship which, when she was built, was the last word in strength and power.'"6
Concerns about the security of the cargo have also been raised. Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) made the following comment in a press release dated 26 November 2009.
"[T]he industry has confirmed today that there is no plan to use an armed ship. Of the three current nuclear ships operated by Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd (PNTL), the 4000-ton Pacific Sandpiper built in 1985 is the only ship of the fleet not fitted with the naval canon or extra accommodation for a security crew that is required for ships carrying plutonium or MOX fuel."7
This is astonishing. Unlike MOX shipments, HLW shipments do not present a risk of nuclear proliferation. However, HLW is extremely hazardous and must be properly secured against attack by terrorists or pirates.
In light of the above concerns, it is extraordinary that the Panama Canal route was chosen. It is not surprising that companies concerned with minimizing costs should choose the shortest and fastest route, but it is surprising that governments, which presumably have a broader view, would allow such a hazardous shipment to follow the route with the maximum potential for accidents and terrorist attacks, as well as the maximum potential damage in the event of an accident.
Unreasonable risks caused by Japan's failed nuclear fuel cycle
Shipping Japan's highly radioactive waste around the world imposes grave risks on en-route countries and the marine environment. No environmental assessment of the risks to en-route countries was carried out and these countries had no input into the decisions that led to these risks. The question arises, why were these risks incurred in the first place?
A fundamental assumption of the Japanese government's nuclear energy policy is that plutonium as an energy resource and using it to fuel nuclear reactors is an effective way of addressing Japan's future energy needs. Under this policy, reprocessing plants were needed to separate plutonium from Japan's spent nuclear fuel. This plutonium was to be used as fuel for Japan's fast breeder reactor program, which in turn was supposed to "breed" more plutonium than it consumed. Japan's reprocessing capacity was insufficient to meet the expected needs of this program, so Japanese power companies entered into contracts to have their spent fuel reprocessed in Europe. This meant that highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel had to be shipped to Europe and nuclear weapons-usable plutonium and HLW shipped back to Japan.
However, Japan's nuclear fuel cycle policy has been an utter failure. The Monju Fast Breeder Reactor is just now preparing to resume operations, more than 14 years after a major accident (NIT 134). Last November the pluthermal8 program finally got started at Kyushu Electric's Genkai-3 plant (NIT 133), but it is over a decade behind schedule. As a consequence, Japan now has accumulated over 46 tons of plutonium, in Europe and Japan. Furthermore, the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, which was supposed to replace the need to reprocess overseas, is thirteen years behind schedule and in serious trouble, due to major problems with the vitrification facility - the facility that is supposed to produce precisely the type of HLW canisters that are now being shipped from the UK.
For the sake of this fiasco of a policy, the world has been forced to endure, and will continue to suffer for at least the next ten years, all the risks associated with transporting the abovementioned hazardous materials back and forth between Japan and Europe. One would have thought that at apology was in order, but there is little evidence of contrition on the part of the Japanese government and nuclear industry.
Masako Sawai and Philip White
Notes and References
1. Reprocessing separates the spent fuel into uranium, plutonium and high-level and other radioactive waste. The HLW is mixed with glass and sealed in stainless steel canisters. These canisters are too radioactive for humans to approach, so they have to be handled by remote control.
2. Figure provided by the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan in response to an inquiry by CNIC on March 8, 2010. Figures published in the media were inconsistent because a previous estimate of 150 canisters was revised down to 70.
3. "Are the nuclear shipments leaving the UK truly safe? NFLA raises concern over the reprocessed HLW fuel shipments to Japan", Nuclear Free Local Authorities Steering Committee media release, 25th January 2010
4. "Nuclear shipments over the Irish Sea", Nuclear Free Local Authorities Briefing, 31st March 2009
5. INF Class 2 shipments are defined by their aggregated radioactivity. INF Class 3 shipments are defined as carrying cargoes of unlimited radioactivity.
6. The letter, dated December 22, 1997, was sent to en-route countries concerning an imminent shipment of intensely radioactive waste from France to Japan.
7. "Preparations for first ever High Level Waste shipment from Sellafield", CORE Briefing No.07/09, 26 November 2009
8. 'Pluthermal' refers to the use of plutonium (MOX) fuel in thermal reactors (i.e. light water reactors), rather than in fast breeder reactors.
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