Spent nuclear fuel reprocessing costs nearly triples, a blow to utilities

April 08, 2013

By SHIN MATSUURA/ Staff Writer

The cost for overseas reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from Japanese nuclear power stations has nearly tripled since 1995 because of problems at a contracted British plant, which is likely to further hurt utilities and be passed along in rate hikes for electricity users.

The cost surged apparently because the plant is plagued with a slew of problems, including leakage of waste liquid.

The current cost at the plant that Japanese utilities commissioned for reprocessing is 122 million yen ($1.28 million) per container of vitrified high-level radioactive waste. That compares with 44 million yen in 1995, when the shipment of such waste from France back to Japan started.

The overall cost for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel into 790 more containers of waste that are scheduled to be returned to Japan is expected to be around 100 billion yen.

A rise in reprocessing costs is will strain utilities’ balance sheets further, and to be passed on to consumers, according to experts.

Shipments of spent nuclear fuel from Japanese power stations to reprocessing plants in Britain and France started in the 1970s to extract plutonium and make nuclear fuel out of it. Large amounts of high-level radioactive waste, which is left over in the reprocessing work, is shipped back to Japan.

In late February, 28 containers of highly radioactive waste from Britain were returned to Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., a company tasked to operate Japan’s reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. The shipment marked the first of its kind in a year and half.

According to Japan Nuclear Fuel’s customs declaration to tax authorities in Hakodate in nearby Hokkaido, the import of all 28 containers totaled 3.4 billion yen, meaning one unit cost 122 million yen, about triple the 44 million yen per container in 1995.

Utilities said the import cost is calculated from the fee of transporting the spent fuel to and from Britain and the cost for reprocessing it into vitrified radioactive waste.

Japan completed a series of shipments of spent nuclear fuel to France and Britain by 2001, on the assumption that the Japanese reprocessing plant would begin operations, as part of the government's nuclear fuel cycle policy. Japan Nuclear Fuel’s reprocessing plant was initially expected to be completed in 1997. But completion has been delayed 19 times due to a flaw in the process of vitrifying radioactive waste.

The transportation of high-level radioactive waste from France to Japan was completed by 2007. The overall reprocessing cost came to about 75.5 billion yen for a total of 1,310 barrels over a 12-year period through 2007.

The shipment of nuclear waste from Britain began in 2010. So far, about 132 containers have been returned to Japan in three shipments, totaling about 12.5 billion yen.

Masako Sawai, a member the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), a private anti-nuclear group of scientists and activists, said Japan should scrap the plan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

“Britain plans to shut down its reprocessing plant after the last shipment of radioactive waste to Japan is finished,” Sawai said. “Japan should abandon the planned reprocessing activity and rather ponder how to restore and manage spent nuclear fuel.”

By SHIN MATSUURA/ Staff Writer
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A container of vitrified radioactive waste, reprocessed at a British plant, is unloaded on Feb. 27 at Mutsuogawara port in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, where Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.’s plant is located. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A container of vitrified radioactive waste, reprocessed at a British plant, is unloaded on Feb. 27 at Mutsuogawara port in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, where Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.’s plant is located. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • A container of vitrified radioactive waste, reprocessed at a British plant, is unloaded on Feb. 27 at Mutsuogawara port in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, where Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.’s plant is located. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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