By Tatsujiro Suzuki | December 26, 2023
According to a recent Reuters report, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd (JNFL) still hopes to finish construction of Japan’s long-delayed Rokkasho reprocessing plant in the first half of the 2024 fiscal year (i.e. during April-September 2024). The plant—which would reprocess spent nuclear fuel from existing power plants, separating plutonium for use as reactor fuel—is already more than 25 years behind schedule, and there are reasons to believe that this new announcement is just another wishful plan that will end with another postponement.
1993: Construction starts.
1997: Initial target for completion.
2006-2008: Hot tests conducted, revealing technical problems with the vitrification process for dealing with waste produced during reprocessing.
2011: Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant accident.
2012: New safety regulation standards introduced.
2022: Completion target date postponed to June 2024)
The 2022 postponement was the 26th of the Rokkasho project.
Fourth, the financial costs to JNFL of postponement are covered by the utilities’ customers, because the utilities must pay a “reprocessing fee” every year, based on the spent fuel generated during that year, whether or not the reprocessing plant operates. The system by which the Nuclear Reprocessing Organization of Japan decides the reprocessing fee is not transparent.
Fifth, the project lacks independent oversight. Even though JNFL’s estimate of the cost of building and operating the Rokkasho plant has increased several-fold, no independent analysis has been done by a third party. One reason is that some of the shareholders are themselves contractors working on the plant and have no incentive to scrutinize the reasons for the cost increases or the indefinite extension of the construction project.
After so many postponements, there is reason to wonder whether the plant will ever operate, but the government and utilities continue to insist that the plant will open soon. Even if Rokkasho were to operate, it may suffer from the same kinds of problems that marked Britain’s light-water reactor spent fuel reprocessing experience, as described in Endless Trouble: Britain’s Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP).
Why does Japan’s commitment to reprocessing continue? Despite the serious and longstanding problems the Rokkasho plant has faced (and continues to face), Japanese regulators and nuclear operators have doggedly pursued the project. There are four reasons:
Spent fuel management. Currently, most of Japan’s spent nuclear fuel is stored in nuclear power plant cooling pools. But the pool capacities are limited, and the 3,000-ton-capacity Rokkasho spent fuel pool is also almost full. The nuclear utilities must therefore start operating the Rokkasho plant unless they can create additional spent fuel storage capacity, either on- or off-site. The Mutsu spent fuel storage facility is a candidate for additional capacity, but due to the concern that spent fuel could stay there forever, Mutsu city refuses to accept spent fuel unless the Rokkasho reprocessing plant begins to operate. The Rokkasho plant design capacity is 800 tons of spent fuel per year.
Legal and institutional commitments. Under Japan’s nuclear regulations, utilities must specify a “final disposal method” for spent fuel. The law on regulation of nuclear materials and nuclear reactors states that “when applying for reactor licensing, operators must specify the final disposal method of spent fuel” (Article 23.2.8). In addition, there was a clause that “disposal method” should be consistent with implementation of the government policy, which specified reprocessing as the disposal method. Although that clause was deleted in the 2012 revision of the law after the Fukushima accident, the Law on Final Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste still bans direct disposal of spent fuel. In addition, the 2016 Law on Reprocessing Fees legally requires utilities to submit reprocessing fees for all spent fuel generated every year since they stated in their applications that “final disposal method” for their spent fuel would be reprocessing.
Commitments to hosting communities. The nuclear utilities committed—albeit tacitly—to the communities hosting nuclear power plants that they would remove the spent fuel to reprocessing plants, since that was the national policy. Separately, JNFL signed an agreement with Rokkasho village and Aomori prefecture that says that if the Rokkasho reprocessing plant faces “severe difficulties,” other measures will be considered—including the return of spent fuel stored at Rokkasho to the nuclear power plants.
Local governments hosting nuclear power plants were not involved in this deal, however. They could therefore just refuse to receive spent fuel from Aomori. In fact, after the Fukushima accident, when the government was considering amending the nuclear fuel cycle policy to include a “direct disposal option” for spent fuel in a deep underground repository, the Rokkasho village parliament (at the behind the scenes suggestion by the then JNFL president, Yoshihiko Kawai), issued a strong statement asking for “maintenance of the current nuclear fuel cycle policy.”
The statement continued that, if Japan’s fuel cycle policy changed, Rokkasho would: refuse to accept further waste from the reprocessing of Japan’s spent fuel in the UK and France; require the removal of reprocessing waste and spent fuel stored in Rokkasho; no longer accept spent fuel; and seek compensation for the damages caused by the change of the policy.
Institutional and bureaucratic inertia. In Japan, bureaucrats rotate to new positions every two or three years and are reluctant to take the risk of changing existing policies. They therefore tend to stick with past commitments. Institutional inertia becomes stronger as a project becomes bigger. The Rokkasho reprocessing project is one of the largest projects ever in Japan. Changing the project is therefore very difficult.