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Guesswork continues over Japan’s Rokkasho reprocessing plant

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Guesswork continues over Japan’s Rokkasho reprocessing plant

2024 is set to be a big year for Japan’s Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing plant. So far, the operators are sticking to their goal of finally – after a 26-year delay – starting to process nuclear waste. But observers doubt that this will happen.

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Tatsujiro Suzuki, a professor at the Nuclear Disarmament Research Center at Nagasaki University, says: “There is reason to believe that this is again just a pious wish that will end in further postponement.” Energy expert Yuriy Humber, founder of Japan NRG, a platform for information about Japan’s energy industry, also doesn’t want to believe in Rokkasho until the reprocessing plant is up and running. “The facility is not finished yet,” he says. “And as long as that is the case, the project will hang over Japan’s nuclear industry like a warning sign of failure.”

A further delay in the commissioning of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant would not come as a surprise; the Japanese have too often experienced false announcements in one of the country’s most ambitious nuclear projects. In 1993, the operating company Japan Nuclear Fuel (JNFL) began construction of the plant. It was a small sensation. With the start of the plant, Japan would be the first non-nuclear weapon state to reprocess its own nuclear fuel rods.

However, a sober look at the project shows that the facility is still an (unfinished) pillar for a nuclear fuel cycle. Rokkasho was actually supposed to process up to 800 tons of nuclear waste every year and produce new fuel for nuclear power plants. However, the originally planned start of operations in 1997 was repeatedly postponed.

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During test runs between 2006 and 2008, technical problems arose with the vitrification process for the waste from reprocessing. The Fukushima reactor disaster stopped the project in 2011, and since 2013 the operators have had to meet significantly stricter safety standards that Japan imposed after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant. JNFL is apparently still working on that. An operating license is still missing.

Nuclear expert Suzuki gives four other reasons for the delays: First, JNFL does not have the necessary expertise to manage such a technologically complex and dangerous project. Instead of experts, the nine electricity suppliers that own JNFL sent managers. Secondly, this would make it difficult to integrate the systems supplied by different companies. Thirdly, there is little cost pressure because the costs are borne by electricity customers through a levy. “Fourth, the project lacks independent oversight,” says Suzuki.

Despite the problems, neither the electricity companies nor politicians want to end the project. This is because Japan’s nuclear strategy still relies on reprocessing. In addition, the facility is already used as an interim storage facility, while there is still no final storage facility.

An end to the dream of reprocessing could therefore lead to the local government insisting that the fuel rods already stored in Rokkasho be returned to the power plant operators. This is a horror idea because they have to fear resistance from other municipalities against the delivery of more nuclear waste to the nuclear power plant site.

Nevertheless, the pressure is growing on everyone involved to finally make decisions. According to the energy authority, Japan’s interim storage facilities are already 80 percent full. The energy suppliers want to increase capacity from the current 24,000 tons to 30,000 tons in 2030. But the authority points out that this must be done with the consent of the local population. And they often stubbornly defend themselves through legal action.

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The development of a nuclear fuel cycle including a reprocessing plant is therefore still praised as a contribution to reducing interim storage of nuclear waste. So it will be interesting to see whether the JNFL can keep its promise this time – or postpone the start of Rokkasho again.

(jl)

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