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Home arrow Environment arrow Reflections on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident

What Are the Problems with the Current Situation?

After March 11, 2011, all forty-eight operable nuclear reactors in Japan had been put out of service one after another due to previously scheduled regular maintenance and inspection, and none could resume operations except for the Number 3 and 4 reactors at Kansai Electric's Oi Nuclear Power Station for the term between July 2012 and September 2013. Prime Minister Noda expressed his support for the restarting of Oi's two reactors on June 8, 2012, driven by the projection that the Kansai area, including Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe, would otherwise suffer from a severe electricity shortage in the coming summer.

While the two units at Oi could restart for a year as an emergency measure, others could not, because more stringent regulations implemented after the accident require all existing 48 reactors to be back-fitted before they obtain permission to restart. Aged reactors in general need more work to comply with new regulations, which creates higher costs, but investing in aged reactors may not pay off if the remaining license term is not long enough. This would lead utilities companies to consider decommissioning their reactors before the license term ends, and thus almost certainly the total number of Japanese nuclear reactors will be reduced in the future. What is not so clear at this moment is how fast the reduction process will occur, and at what capacity the Japanese nuclear fleet size will level off.

The Japanese monthly trade statistics [2, 3] indicate that Japan's import of natural gas jumped from about 3 trillion yen in 2009 and 2010 to 5.4 trillion yen in 2011. Similarly, oil imports in 2011 increased to 12 trillion yen from 9 to 10 trillion yen in the previous years. Such hikes occurred because the gap created by loss of the nuclear reactor fleet had to be filled by the existing fleet of fossilfired plants. If this situation continues, Japan has to spend an extra 4–5 trillion yen every year. In addition, burning oil and gas emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In 2011, Japan emitted an extra 175 million ton of carbon dioxide compared to the average annual emission before the accident. This pattern will continue as long as Japan relies fully on fossil fuels.

When Aomori Prefecture agreed in 1989 to build in Rokkasho the reprocessing plant and attached interim storage facilities for spent fuel and HLW canisters, the central government promised that Rokkasho would never be the final disposal site for HLW. After the accident, in the course of public discussions about whether nuclear power utilization should be continued or phased out and whether reprocessing should be carried out or abandoned, Aomori Prefecture warned that all spent fuel and HLW canisters currently stored in the Rokkasho site must be returned back to their original plants if reprocessing is not carried out in Rokkasho. In this case, 3,350 MT of spent fuel stored currently in Rokkasho and 8,000 canisters of HLW to be returned from U.K. and France would need to be relocated from Rokkasho.

In October 2013, in Mutsu city, Aomori, the interim storage facility for spent fuel became available first with a 3,000 MT capacity with a planned expansion to 5,000 MT in the future. Considering that the fleet size is likely to be significantly reduced, and that there is a total of approximately 10,000 MT (6,000 in individual power plant sites and 3,000–5,000 in Mutsu) of available space for spent fuel storage, Japan can restart reactors for a decade or longer while postponing decision on reprocessing. This offers Japan an invaluable grace period to review policy, during which time a plan must be developed for the mediumand long-term range.

The United States has been demanding that Japan make clear its plans for commercial Pu utilization to avoid creating a large Pu stockpile. However, with the onset of delays in the development of FBR technologies, the Atomic Energy Commission and utilities companies decided to introduce utilization of Pu in the form of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel with existing LWRs. 44 MT of separated Pu (Table 6.2) can be made into approximately 640 MT of MOX fuel at the MOX fuel fabrication plant to be commissioned in 2017 at JNFL's Rokkasho site with production capacity of 130 MT/year. Thus, if LWRs can be restarted, the Pu stockpile can be burnt in LWRs in the form of MOX. Assurance of timely Pu consumption by MOX utilization will be helpful for the Rokkasho reprocessing plant to commence its operation. However, if an immediate nuclear phase-out is chosen, this MOX option for dealing with the Pu stockpile would no longer be viable.

Without establishing a complete fuel cycle with FBR, geological disposal becomes more complicated. Before the accident, the policy was to reprocess all spent nuclear fuel and to utilize separated Pu as MOX first for LWRs, but eventually for FBRs. If FBRs are deployed, the resultant wastes that require deep geological disposal are HLW and intermediate-level waste (so-called TRU waste) from reprocessing. Because only trace amounts of weapons-usable materials, such as Pu, are included in HLW or TRU, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would terminate its safeguards inspection for a disposal facility for these two types of waste. But, if a repository is for disposal of spent fuel (either MOX or UOX), separated Pu and U, IAEA will not terminate its safeguards inspection in perpetuity. In addition to safeguardability issues, a geological repository for spent fuels can potentially be a greater radiological risk than that for HLW and TRU.

These issues, i.e., (1) Aomori Prefecture's refusal to store HLW and spent fuel in Rokkasho without a plan for them to be taken out to a permanent geological repository, (2) drainage of national wealth for purchasing additional oil and gas,

(3) international pressure on Japan not to have an unnecessary Pu stockpile, and

(4) perpetual safeguards inspection and higher potential radiological risk to be imposed on a final repository for spent fuel and separated Pu and U, are coupled to each other, creating a deadlocked situation after the accident. If reactors are back in operation and reprocessing is conducted at Rokkasho, aforementioned issues (1), (2), and (3) could be solved, but the resultant repository would require high maintenance for a long-term period. Public agreement on this scenario seems to be very difficult to reach under the current situation. If reactors restart but reprocessing is abandoned, (2) and (3) could be solved, while (1) and (4) remain unsolved. If reactors and reprocessing are decommissioned, all four issues remain unsolved, while public support for this option may be the greatest.

 
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