Nuclear watchdog tightening safety regulations on fuel processing plants

July 03, 2013

By JIN NISHIKAWA/ Staff Writer

The Nuclear Regulation Authority presented its draft outline July 2 for tighter regulation standards for facilities dealing with nuclear fuel, such as the spent fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture.

The Rokkasho plant entered trial runs in 2006, but its completion has been delayed 19 times due to repeated operation failures. The operator, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., said it hoped the plant would be ready for operations in October.

But only after the new standards for nuclear fuel facilities take effect in December is the NRA expected to be ready for safety screenings using the updated regulations. That will be followed by obligatory pre-operation tests and the conclusion of safety agreements with local governments where such facilities are located.

That means the Rokkasho reprocessing plant is not expected to enter full operations until next year at the earliest.

The proposed regulations include obligatory preparations to counter catastrophic accidents, as well as earthquake and tsunami preparedness measures, that are as rigorous as those spelled out in a separate set of new regulation standards for nuclear reactors that will take effect on July 8.

The new catastrophic accident preparedness requirements will be applicable to nine facilities that engage in fuel processing, reprocessing and other operations.

Those facilities will be required to take more stringent measures to prevent radiation leaks that could result from future disasters, such as the evaporation of highly radioactive liquid waste due to a cooling system failure, fire or a hydrogen explosion like the one that occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

More specifically, the reprocessing plant will be called on to install firefighting vehicles and power generation vehicles, an earthquake-proof and radiation-proof emergency response center and systems that can spray water on every single building in the plant. Additionally, the plant will be required to make sure it can operate using emergency backup power sources for a week in the event all external power supplies are down.

And, as is the case with nuclear reactors, no key components of the reprocessing plant will be allowed to lie directly atop active geological fault lines. Surveys will be commissioned to study possible active faults covering as far back as 400,000 years.

The now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, one of the NRA predecessors, had pointed out a need for in-depth geological survey of the Shimokita Peninsula, the site of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. The NRA is expected to take it upon itself to conduct such surveys as part of its safety screening measures.

By JIN NISHIKAWA/ Staff Writer
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Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.'s reprocessing plant and related facilities in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.'s reprocessing plant and related facilities in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.'s reprocessing plant and related facilities in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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