Despite the national crisis of confidence in nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the example by other countries that have abandoned reprocessing, and proliferation concerns engendered by the growing Japanese stockpile of plutonium, the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (RRP) in northern Aomori prefecture lives on.
One reason is Rokkasho enjoys strong support from prefectural and local governments (some, like Rokkasho village, are highly dependent on grants to keep their communities viable), and, more importantly, unwavering support from an entrenched national government, which believes that recycling nuclear fuel is an essential element of Japan’s energy mix.
The reprocessing plant in northern Honshu has a poor reputation for technical glitches and other problems. However there is growing confidence that the technical problems that plagued Rokkasho before the Fukushima accident and which caused an embarrassingly large number of commissioning delays are a thing of the past.
Japan’s utilities, which are counting on Rokkasho’s operation to alleviate their having to hold on to and properly store spent fuel, are committed to Japan’s long-standing program of using mixed uranium and plutonium fuel known as MOX. This was underscored by the two dozen mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel assemblies loaded into the Takahama-3 plant late last year.
Utilities have massive sunk costs, not only in the Rokkasho plant but in the nearly half a dozen other elements of nuclear infrastructure in Aomori prefecture, including a MOX fabrication plant, uranium enrichment plant, and Mutsu Interim (spent fuel) Storage Facility. They are not likely to recover these costs if the centerpiece, Rokkasho, is abandoned.
The utilities are also aware that if Rokkasho is abandoned, Aomori prefecture will insist that they take back the spent fuel currently stored in Rokkasho’s nearly full spent fuel storage pool, adding to their backlog of spent fuel sitting in utility pools.
Aomori prefecture’s Energy Policy Bureau says it is confident that the national government will stick by its promise to complete the RRP, as well as other associated plants such as the MOX fabrication plant, because closing the fuel cycle is an important part of the national energy strategy. The various nuclear activities in the prefecture have over the years brought in approximately 2.8 trillion yen ($25.8 billion) in grants and subsidies, money that has literally kept some of the host communities viable. About 5,000 of Rokkasho village’s 11,000 residents work on Rokkasho and related projects.
The key, of course, is the viability of the Rokkasho plant. It has a long history of delays stretching back to the beginning of construction. The projected operating date has been shoved back about 20 times since construction began in 1997; the latest delay extends the opening to 2018.
However, all of the earlier delays were tied directly to technical difficulties in running the reprocessing equipment, especially the tricky vitrification (glassification) technology. There were problems in running the melting furnaces, an accumulation of platinum group elements, falling bricks and clogging of the lower nozzles, among other problems. These operational problems stemmed from Japan’s stubborn determination to scale up the more primitive reprocessing operations at the Tokai development site rather than buy a tried-and-true system from France.
There is good reason to believe that most of these lengthy teething problems are behind Rokkasho. The latest operational trial run in May 2013 was considered a success even by normally critical groups such as the Citizens Nuclear Information Center, which in the past has published problems at Rokkasho in exhaustive detail. Although the final commissioning test will not be run until the plant gets the Nuclear Regulatory Authority’s (NRA) green light, operators are confident it will work as designed.
“We consider that the technology [is] established,” said a company spokesperson. The prefectural government says it was in general agreement, although it believed that the test had some glitches: “We understand that the problems were overcome – we think.”
That leaves the safety evaluation by the NRA, which faces the time-consuming difficulties of identifying safety standards and then inspecting them on this singular, one-of-a kind technology. As per its latest announcement, the process will take about two years, although some think it might stretch to four years, considering that the NRA is directing its limited resources to confirming the safety of some 20-odd nuclear plants in Japan, whose utility owners are eager to get them back on line producing electricity.
Another indicator of Rokkasho’s centrality to energy policy in Japan is the revival of the MOX program with the insertion of 24 used and new MOX fuel assemblies at the Takahama-3 reactor, the first use of MOX since the Fukushima disaster. Before Fukushima it was expected that 16-18 reactors would use MOX.
Takahama’s owner, the Kansai Electric Power Co., is bringing Takahama 3-4 back on line, pending the lifting of an injunction preventing the reactor from powering up. It was the second station to clear the NRA safety inspection regime, since it was set up in 2012. So far only two reactors, Sendai 1-2 in Kyushu, are in actual operation.
Two other reactors in the Kyushu-Shikoku region are prime candidates for using MOX fuel once they get the regulatory green light to commence operations. The Ikata-3 plant on Shikoku Island, which has also received preliminary approval from the NRA, had earmarked MOX for the Ikata-3 unit. Likely to get approval this year is Kyushu’s Genkai plant complex. Opponents had sought a court injunction to prevent the use of MOX in Genkai-3 once it cleared the NRA inspection. The court dismissed the injunction, saying, “any danger [from using MOX fuel] has not been proven.”
The Aomori Energy Policy Board declined to speculate for the record as to what would happen if the Rokkasho plant and its associated facilities, such as the MOX manufacturing plant, should be closed down. It is understood, however, that the prefecture would demand that spent fuel sitting in the Rokkasho spent fuel pool and any dry casks sent to the Mutsu Interim Storage Facility be returned to the owners. They are willing to support a closed fuel cycle, but are not interested in turning Aomori prefecture into a permanent waste repository.
Todd Crowell is Japan correspondent for Anadolu, the Turkish news agency, and previously served as a Senior Writer for Asiaweek. He has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor; Asian Wall Street Journal and other publications.