Rokkasho redux: Japan’s never-ending reprocessing saga

By Tatsujiro Suzuki | December 26, 2023

Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Japan Aomori. Credit: Nife. (CC BY-SA 3.0). Accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Japan Aomori. Credit: Nife. (CC BY-SA 3.0). Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the IPFM blog.

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.

One indication of further possible delays: On September 28, 2023, Naohiro Masuda, president of JNFL, stated that the safety review of the reprocessing plant by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority will be difficult to complete by the end of 2023. He nevertheless insisted that the company could still meet completion target date in 2024.

Here is a partial history of past key developments that make completion in 2024 seem unlikely:

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.

Why so many postponements? There seem to be at least five underlying reasons for the postponements for the Rokkasho plant. First, JNFL lacks relevant expertise to manage such a technologically complex and hazardous project, which is owned by nine nuclear utilities plus all other major companies associated with nuclear power in Japan. Most of the firm’s senior executives are from shareholding companies (especially utility companies) and are not necessarily experts in the field of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

Second, the technologies in the plant came from different companies and institutions. The management of the project is therefore technically complex.

Third, the post-Fukushima-accident nuclear facility safety licensing review process is much more stringent than what existed before the accident. For example, the Nuclear Regulation Authority told JNFL at their November 25, 2023 meeting: “JNFL should immediately make improvements because it is clear that JNFL does not understand the contents of the permit well enough to confirm the adequacy of the design of the facilities on site and has not visited the site.”

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.

Will Japan’s new plutonium capping policy have any real impact? In 2018, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission announced a new policy on “Basic Principles on Utilization of Plutonium” (see also this post). Under the new policy, the commission proposed that Japan would reduce its stockpile of separated plutonium, starting with a commitment not to increase it, and that reprocessing would take place only when a credible plan to use the separated plutonium existed.

The policy seeks to at least begin to deal with the huge stocks of plutonium Japan has amassed, both in European separation facilities (some 36.7 tons) and in Japan (10.5 tons), in anticipation of using the plutonium widely to fuel nuclear reactors—which so far has not materialized. In conjunction with the new Reprocessing Fee Law, the new plutonium policy gives the government legal authority to control the pace of reprocessing.

But it is not clear how the “capping policy” will be implemented. It is not a legally binding document, and no regulation has been introduced to control reprocessing. Utilities must submit specific plans for plutonium use to the Atomic Energy Commission for its review before reprocessing of their fuel begins. But the commission can only give advice to the government about the credibility of these plans, giving rise to questions about whether the policy will lead to sustained changes in reprocessing activity. A similar “paper rule” on plutonium has existed since 2003.

A way out. Japan could extricate itself from its reprocessing and plutonium problems in several ways. All involve significant changes in policy that would:

Find additional spent fuel storage capacity, on- or off-site. Local communities may be more willing to accept on-site dry cask storage of spent fuel if they are told that it is safer than spent fuel pool storage. For example, Saga Prefecture and Genkai-town, which host Kyushu Electric’s Genkai Nuclear Power Plant, have agreed to host dry cask storage starting in 2027. Host communities may want guarantees that spent fuel will be removed after a specified storage period. Such a guarantee could be given by the central government.

Amend the law on final disposal of high-level radioactive waste. An amendment could allow direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel in a deep underground repository. This would provide more flexibility in spent fuel management and make it easier for communities to host interim spent fuel storage.

Amend the Reprocessing Fee Law and shut down Rokkasho. An amendment to the law on reprocessing fees could allow the government to use reprocessing funds to implement a shutdown of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. Such a plan could include payment of the debt JNFL has incurred while pursuing the Rokkasho project and funds for dry cask interim storage. This would enable the government to finally end the problem-plagued Rokkasho reprocessing plant project.

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