On May 13, Japanese nuclear regulators announced that the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant had met new safety regulations, taking a crucial step toward becoming operational.
The government has long touted the facility as crucial to the country’s nuclear energy policy, but construction has been plagued by difficulties since starting nearly three decades ago. And now, with low demand for the plutonium that the plant would extract, some are questioning the need for the project to be continued at all.
Nearly 30 years of trouble
Rokkasho would become Japan’s first commercial facility with the capability to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and extract reusable plutonium. The plutonium would then be mixed with uranium to produce what is known as mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel. This would be used to power nuclear plants across the country, helping Japan reduce its reliance on energy imports.The government also says the facility would help reduce spent fuel, which is taking up storage space at nuclear plants. If the fuel isn’t reprocessed, these plants may reach their storage limits and be forced to halt operations.
Construction on the plant in Rokkasho Village, Aomori Prefecture, began in 1993. It was initially scheduled to be completed in 1997 but a string of technical problems forced officials to repeatedly push back the deadline.
Trial operations began in 2006 but were halted after a series of technical issues. Then, construction had to be altered so the plant would meet stricter safety requirements implemented by the government after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. In 2014, Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited, the operator of the Rokkasho Plant, applied for a safety screening with the Nuclear Regulation Authority, and last month, the facility was judged to have met the new standards.
But even as the plant inches closer to going online, serious questions are being raised about the need for such a facility, given the low demand for reprocessed plutonium. Currently, only four reactors in the country are approved to be powered by MOX fuel. And given that the use of MOX requires local government consent, and that regulators have been slow to bring nuclear plants back online in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, it is unlikely that this number will increase any time soon.
Furthermore, unused plutonium can’t simply be stored. Japan is committed to an international effort to reduce stockpiles of the element, as it can also be used for the development of nuclear weapons. The country already possesses 46 tons of plutonium, believed to be enough to power thousands of atomic bombs. Rokkasho would have the capacity to produce an additional seven tons annually.
The plant’s lengthy construction has also led to a ballooning price tag. The initial cost of the project was estimated at about $7.1 billion. The tab now sits at nearly $28 billion. The total cost, including operations and eventual decommissioning work, is expected to come out to a staggering $130 billion—much of it paid for by consumers in the form of electricity bills.
Researcher calls for the plan to be reviewed
Dr. Suzuki Tatsujiro, Vice Director at Nagasaki University’s Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition (RECNA) and a nuclear policy expert who once served on the country’s Atomic Energy Commission, is one of those who has serious doubts about the viability of the Rokkasho plant.
He says the huge costs of reprocessing and the security issues, such as risk of excess plutonium being stolen, should be weighed against the benefits espoused by the government.
Rokkasho is currently scheduled to be completed by September 2021, at which point the facility will have to undergo a final screening procedure for its equipment. But regulators seem to think this timeline is unrealistic, given the current state of the plant. Suzuki says, instead of plowing ahead toward the finish line, now is the time to reflect on whether construction should be continued at all.