Japan’s plan to reprocess and recycle spent nuclear fuel in a reprocessing plant in the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, will be a huge waste of electricity users’ money and an environmental threat, according to a French atomic power expert.
Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., which runs the plant, had been planning to finish the trial run of its Rokkasho plant for commercial operation by the end of the year. But due to a glitch found in the plant, the schedule has been delayed until next spring at the earliest, since JNFL plans to conduct a trial run until February.
“Plutonium separation from nuclear waste complicates the nuclear-waste management problem greatly,” Mycle Schneider, an independent consultant on energy and nuclear policy, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
Data from French authorities showed that power generation using reprocessed spent nuclear fuel costs 83 percent more to dispose of its radioactive waste than disposing of spent fuel from conventional reactors, Schneider said.
As a former executive director of WISE-Paris, a nongovernmental research organization on energy policy, Schneider has served as an adviser to the French Environment Minister’s Office. He was visiting Japan this month to give lectures at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and to some environmental groups.
Based on Japan’s nuclear policy, JNFL plans to turn the plutonium and uranium gained through reprocessing into mixed oxide uranium-plutonium fuel for use in conventional nuclear reactors and in fast-breeder reactors.
Although France used to be the leader in fast-breeder technology, it turned away from such reactors in recent years.
Electricite de France, a major French power utility, closed the Superphenix fast-breeder reactor in 1997. The Phenix fast-breeder reactor will also be shut down sometime next year, Schneider said.
“EDF had a lot of technical problems with the reactor. It’s too complicated to explain them, but they were very much safety-related,” Schneider said. “Phenix didn’t have major accidents, but EDF was afraid that significant accidents might happen because they had some signs of accidents that they could not identify.”
In Japan, the Monju plutonium fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, was shut down after a sodium leak and fire in 1995. It remains halted.
Compared with conventional light-water reactors, the structure of fast-breeder reactors is much more complicated and their facilities have to be operated in perfect harmony, which is almost impossible using current technology, Schneider said.
The fast-breeder reactors in France had been planning to use plutonium separated from nuclear waste. But because the plan failed, France has 55 tons of weapons-grade plutonium stock, Schneider said.
Japan had 31.2 tons of plutonium as of the end of last year, the majority of which has been stored in reprocessing plants in France and the U.K., according to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.
“Plutonium separation also means the largest radioactive emissions in the overall nuclear fuel chain and has significant contribution to the collective global dose (of radiation),” Schneider said.
In fact, reprocessing plants in France and the U.K. have been disposing of radioactive emissions into the ocean. One of the radioactive materials, iodine 129, has been found on the northern Norwegian coast and the Baltic Sea, according to Riso National Laboratory in Denmark.
Some 4 tons of iodine 129 had been discharged by the reprocessing plants by 2004 and the concentration of iodine 129 in the Baltic Sea in 2000 was 1,000 times higher than before nuclear energy existed.
While JNFL has been testing the operation of the fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Schneider said the utility should give up the operation and store spent nuclear fuel in dry storage facilities.
“It is much safer to store spent fuel in dry storage in Rokkasho than operating the reprocessing plant,” Schneider said.
The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, a major investor in JNFL, said in 2003 it would cost ¥11 trillion to construct, operate and dismantle the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. Power companies have set aside reserves since1981 to cover the cost. According to the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, a 2004 estimate by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission shows that power generation using reprocessed spent nuclear fuel would cost about ¥0.5 to ¥0.7 per kwh more than conventional nuclear power generation, which will be equivalent to roughly 1 percent of an average household’s annual electricity bill.
Schneider said the public will have to shoulder the huge cost unless the reprocessing plant is suspended.
“It’s up to the decision of Japanese people to say (Japan should) stop (the reprocessing) or we pay for it,” Schneider said. “But the problem is there is no interaction between people who pay for it and people who spend the money.”
On Oct. 16, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency announced plans to increase the share of nuclear power to 53 percent of total electricity supply by 2100 from the current 30 percent, but doubts remain whether the public supports the plan.
“The Japanese nuclear industry hasn’t been even able to operate its (existing) nuclear reactors,” Schneider said. The energy plan is “some kind of fantasy.”
Schneider said earthquakes are the major factor that make nuclear power an unreliable energy source in Japan.
In July 2007, a fire broke out and water containing radioactive material leaked at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant when a magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit Niigata Prefecture. The nuclear plant, which has seven reactors and is the world’s largest in terms of electrical output, is still out of commission.
“The situation at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa shows how difficult it is to operate nuclear reactors in Japan because of the earthquake risk,” Schneider said.