Media watch: Fuel reprocessing scheme put off for the 26th time

Rokkasho reprocessing plant (Tokyo Shimbun)

The media tends to frame the controversy over restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants as one that pits nuclear power advocates in the government and the energy industry against organizations that are opposed to nuclear energy under any circumstances. However, the reality is not so circumscribed. Japan had several dozen nuclear reactors working full-time when the Fukushima No. 1 reactor was hit by a tsunami in March 2011 and subsequently underwent a meltdown, thus affecting the lives of thousands of area residents. The Japanese public was alarmed, and in response the government shut down all the country’s nuclear reactors and pledged to make the system safer so that such accidents would not happen, and, if they did, that they would not harm the populace. In the subsequent decade, only a handful of reactors have gone back online, despite the urgent need to replace the air-polluting, globe-heating fossil fuel thermal power plants that took those reactors’ place. The reason that most of these nuclear plants have not gone back online is not because environmental groups have successfully fought the authorities to keep them offline, but because those authorities, whether they be government agencies or private power companies, have not kept their promise to ensure these plants are safe and that they have measures in place to evacuate residents in the case of an accident. Nuclear power advocates spend a lot of time and resources trying to convince the public that nuclear power is safe, and yet the public still doesn’t trust those entities that manage nuclear power facilities, because they haven’t given the people any reason to.

This reality is exemplified by a recent news item reported by NHK on July 29, when a regular news conference took place for the nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in Rokkasho village in Aomori Prefecture. Naohiro Masuda, the president of Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL), which owns the Rokkasho plant, announced at the news conference that his company was thinking about postponing its completion yet again. Prior to the announcement, the facility was set to open in September of this year. However, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has said that JNFL’s safety countermeasures and additional construction to the plant have not been inspected sufficiently, so further evaluations are needed. When asked what the new timeline for the opening of the Rokkasho facility is, Masuda said it should not be “two or three years more,” but, in any case it also will not be “in a few months.”

What Masuda didn’t say explicitly but which NHK pointed out in its report is that this marks the 26th time that the opening of the Rokkasho facility has been postponed. Construction of Rokkasho began in 1993 with an initial completion date in 1997, but the project has been plagued by structural problems and safety concerns. And whereas the original budget for the plant was ¥760 billion, by the end of 2021 the estimated cost had risen to ¥3 trillion.

NHK doesn’t go into detail about the reason for the most recent postponement, but an article that appeared last January in Tokyo Shimbun, a newspaper that has been critical of Japan’s nuclear power industry, basically predicted that the plant would not be completed this September. That date was announced by JNFL in the summer of 2021, and Tokyo Shimbun learned that the head of NRA had complained to Masuda during a meeting that they didn’t think JNFL was being serious enough in its projections. NRA did not have much confidence in JNFL’s current construction plan and demanded it be altered. Masuda, who was the plant manager at the Fukushima No. 2 reactor when the 2011 meltdown happened, actually admitted that JNFL’s inspection of the work they were doing had been lacking, though he said that his employees were “working hard.” Masuda’s plan was to restructure the company so as to improve its inspection capabilities. Tokyo Shimbun became skeptical after it was reported that when Masuda told the NRA representatives they could “expect better things” in the future, the representatives “laughed.”

Nevertheless, Masuda told the press in January that the plant would still be completed by September, implying that the safety inspection would be to the NRA’s satisfaction even though no reliable inspection data had yet been reported to the NRA. Tokyo Shimbun learned that Masuda’s restructuring plan involved bringing in some 50 people from various electric power companies to help create materials that would be used for the inspection. However, by December of 2021, NRA learned that the measures being studied to prevent the buildup of toxic gases did not meet the NRA’s standards. In response, JNFL submitted inspection materials and said they wanted the NRA to note their efforts and reattempts to get on with the inspection. But the NRA said it was not their job as a regulator to carry out or help JNFL carry out the inspection, which seemed to be the JNFL’s implication. It was up to the JNFL to conduct the inspection to find problems, fix those problems, and then show the NRA how they fixed them. 

In other words, JNFL wanted the NRA to tell them what to do, which would mean JNFL either expects the NRA to assist in the inspection or wants the NRA to tell them exactly what they should report to gain approval. In any case, according to an inspector from Kyushu Power brought in to help with the inspection, JNFL was unable to explain their work in a comprehensible, convincing way. Whether that amounts to laziness or incompetence—or both—it isn’t clear. 

This sort of mindset seems to be widespread in the industry, and is the reason why many courts in Japan have refused to allow some reactors to go back online: the plant operators have not shown that they are serious about safety. They do their minimum and hope the regulators give them a pass. 

The reprocessing scheme has been a bust anyway. The concept sounded ideal: chemically reprocess spent fuel from Japanese reactors into new fuel that can be reused. Originally, the plan was to include testing and use of this fuel at the Monju fast breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, but the plan was plagued by accidents and malfeasance, and eventually the Monju reactor was closed down for safety reasons, thus obviating much of the purpose of the Rokkasho plant. So given the endless delays and cost overruns that have plagued Rokkasho itself, it’s easy to understand the public’s lack of confidence. 

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