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The Rokkasho Site: Recent Developments
Overseas reprocessing to be extended

The Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPCO) have stated that they are interested in having more reprocessing done at the French company COGEMA. Although at present there is no formal agreement, it is said that contracts may be signed in spring 2001. The utilities justify the additional reprocessing contracts by pointing to the need for employee training for the operation of Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. The main techniques at the plant, such as separation of uranium, plutonium, and waste from melted spent fuel, were imported from the SGN company which is a subsidiary of COGEMA. However, the Tokai Reprocessing Plant also imported techniques from SGN and thus there is no need to send operators to France for training.

At the same time, 40~50 people are to be sent from France to Japan to give technical training at Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant as part of the technique transfer contract between JNFL and SGN. A French town is being constructed in Shimoda town near Rokkasho for the family of such trainers. A single-family house is being built for each trainer's family and there are families living in 10 which have already been completed. The children of families already in Japan are being educated by teachers sent from France, and are receiving education in the same style as their home country.

COGEMA's UP-3 plant (capacity/800 tHM) exclusively processes spent fuel of non-French origin. The reprocessing of the contracted amount of 2900 tHM of Japanese spent fuel has already been completed. Spent fuel from Germany is to be sent to COGEMA up until 2005, but there is no more spent fuel to be reprocessed for the moment. Thus COGEMA is planning to consolidate UP-2 Plant, which up until now processed domestic spent fuel, and UP-3 Plant, and will reduce the annual processing capacity to 1000 tHM. In addition, Electricity of France (EDF) has become more cautious on pursuing reprocessing, and reprocessing business for COGEMA is in decline.
The new contract between Japan and France is for 600 tHM of spent fuel to be reprocessed at the UP-3 Plant. This is clearly an effort on the Japanese side to assist the prolonging of the operation of the UP-3 Plant and thus there is a strong possibility of additional contracts. It is reported that COGEMA is asking for 300 million yen (a reprocessing fee of 200 million plus a training fee of 100 million yen) per 1 tHM of spent fuel. This brings the value of the contract to 180 billion yen. The spent fuel is to be sent in four separate shipments carrying 150 tHM each, starting in 2001. The extension of reprocessing contracts is a stark contradiction of efforts by the Japanese government and utilities to force through the construction and operation of Rokkasho and Tokai Reprocessing Plants. Clearly the decision to commission additional overseas reprocessing was seen as an easy short-term solution for the problems of radioactive waste management, countering the difficulties met in siting a location for a domestic spent fuel interim storage facility. COGEMA, which has lost business due to Germany's nuclear phase-out policy, and Japanese utilities, which are in desperate need of a waste dump, are satisfying their interests by extending reprocessing contracts.

Developments in reprocessing and MOX fuel use

On 12 October 2000, the governments of Aomori Prefecture and Rokkasho Village agreed with Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL) on a safety package for receiving spent fuel at JNFL's Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. However, the agreement really has nothing to do with "safety" and is more like an excuse for the discharge of radioactivity. It is planned that six other municipalities will sign similar agreements. This means that all local governments have agreed on the operation of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant.

Although operation of the plant is not expected to begin before July 2005, the safety package was signed in great haste. Of course this is not because of any pressing need for plutonium, but because of the problems with storage of spent fuel. The utilities are currently looking for a site to construct an interim spent fuel storage facility but have not even been able to come up with a site candidate. The utilities' efforts to promote the establishment of such facilities have been met with strong local opposition. In fact, the utilities will not be able to find a new storage site for this burdensome nuclear waste. That is why they are trying to send as much of their waste as possible to the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant which has a 3000 tHM storage pool. The safety package was needed for this reason. As of March 2000, the amount of spent fuel stored at nuclear power plants across Japan is about 8500 tHM. JNFL plans to have spent fuel shipped in mid-December 2000 from Fukushima II and Tokai II, where there is little room left in the storage capacity. JNFL has stated that they will have about 1600 tHM of spent fuel transported to Rokkasho by the beginning of plant operation in July, 2005.

MOX Plant Construction Plan

On 10 November 2000, FEPCO, which promotes reprocessing as radioactive waste management, announced its plan to construct a mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel production plant. The plan is a response to the overriding pressure to devise ways of using extracted plutonium. JNFL, the owner of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, will be the operator, and the plant will be constructed on the Reprocessing Plant site with an annual capacity of 130 tons. The construction is planned to take 5~6 years, and the plant is expected to begin operation some time in 2008~9. The estimated construction cost is 120 billion yen. It is certain that the deregulation of the electricity market will continue in Japan, and there are considerable doubts over the possibility of promoting MOX fuel use since it further raises the costs of already costly nuclear power.

FEPCO maintains that the construction of a MOX Plant adjacent to the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is in conformity with original plans. However, the use of MOX fuel in light water reactors was in reality thought up in the aftermath of the failure of the fast breeder reactor development program. This MOX Plant construction plan is a counter-measure to deal with the excess plutonium that will be extracted at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. The Japanese government and the utilities are dragging the Japanese public into the plutonium quagmire in order to cloak the fact that their nuclear fuel cycle plans have collapsed.

6th Transportation of Japanese High Level Radioactive Waste

On 6 Dec. 2000, JNFL and the Nuclear Fuel Transport Co., Ltd. announced that the sixth shipment of Japanese high level radioactive waste from Europe back to Japan will take place early next year. According to the Electric Newspaper, the companies plan to have the ship leave Europe by mid-January, and arrive in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture around February 2001. The short transport period involved in this plan most likely means that the route will be through the Panama Canal. The high level waste was treated at COGEMA's UP3 Plant in La Hauge, France and will be carried by Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd. (PNTL). JNFL applied to have 8 casks containing 192 canisters transported to its high level waste storage facility in Rokkasho.

By Masako Sawai

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