Japanese nuclear research agency to export domestically ‘useless’ uranium ore via The Mainichi

The Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) plans to export a total of 125 metric tons of nuclear-related materials including uranium ore collected domestically and overseas in connection with the organization’s uranium prospecting projects in Japan, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

The JAEA will outsource the work to refine uranium ore into fuel for nuclear power reactors, and have the contractor purchase the refined material. This effectively means that the Japanese government-funded research and development agency will be taking nuclear-related materials that have no use in Japan and discarding them overseas.

The materials to be exported include uranium ore and ion-exchange resin that has adsorbed uranium. These materials are currently stored at the JAEA’s Ningyo-toge Environmental Engineering Center in Okayama Prefecture and the Tono Geoscience Center in Gifu Prefecture, which controls the Tono Mine. Uranium ore had been mined from the Ningyo pass mining area, as well as being imported from overseas for research purposes. The uranium mines at the two centers are set to be closed down, and uranium ore needs to be removed for them to be shut down.

Uranium ore is a resource needed for the operation of nuclear power reactors, but Japan doesn’t have a processing plant. At the same time, the material is not supposed to be discarded as waste. As some of it emits radiation exceeding permissible levels, Japan would need a legitimate reason to take it out of the country.

As a general rule, nuclear waste must be disposed of at the location where it was created, meaning that taking it outside Japan could violate international regulations. Under such circumstances, the idea of commissioning another party to refine the materials emerged.

The JAEA signed a 170-million-yen (roughly $1.24 million) contract with a subsidiary of Tokyo-based trading house Sojitz Corp. in December 2021 to handle projects including shipment of the materials overseas. The transportation is scheduled to be completed by February 2023. A U.S. company is seen as a likely candidate for the work, but no agreement has been finalized.

Under the plan, uranium ore will be transported to an overseas refining plant, whose cost will be covered by Japan. The refined “uranium concentrate” will then be purchased by the contractor, but as commission fees outweigh the sale price, Japan’s costs will likely exceed revenue.

A JAEA official told the Mainichi Shimbun, “We strongly feel that we want to dispose the materials we have in storage,” admitting that the project is different from a regular business transaction in which uranium ore is merely sold as a resource.

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Hiroaki Koide, who served as an associate professor at the former Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute (now the university’s Institute for Integrated Radiation and Nuclear Science), said, “Having collected uranium ore only to find there is no way to use it is a typical example of the overly optimistic attitude from those in charge of nuclear power administration. The authorities go ahead with projects based on optimistic forecasts, and once the projects fail, they pour in taxpayers’ money to deal with them.” He continued, “If there is no use for the uranium ore, that means it’s garbage, and officials should follow the rule that nuclear waste must be processed where it is created.”

(Japanese original by Daisuke Oka, Business News Department; Takuya Yoshida, Science & Environment News Department; and Seiya Tateyama, Nagoya News Center)

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