Nuclear power plants in disarray: Lack of waste burial site to delay Tokai reactor decommissioning

November 18, 2013


Work to decommission the nation's first commercial nuclear reactor cannot start for the simple reason there is still no disposal site for radioactive waste.

Japan Atomic Power Co. looks set yet again to postpone dismantling of the reactor of the Tokai nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, sources said. The task was originally scheduled for fiscal 2011 and then put off until fiscal 2014.

"It will be difficult to begin dismantling the reactor next fiscal year," a source said.

The plant started operations in 1966 and was shut down in 1998. It is the first commercial reactor slated for decommissioning in Japan.

Decommissioning will generate 27,800 tons of low-level radioactive waste. Of that, 1,600 tons, such as control rods and reactor components, must be buried at a depth of 50 to 100 meters.

Under the plan approved by the industry ministry in 2006, the reactor was to be dismantled over six years from fiscal 2011. The cost of decommissioning was estimated at 88.5 billion yen ($883 million).

No disposal site has since been selected. The Nuclear Regulation Authority has yet to set safety standards for a disposal site, citing the absence of such a facility.

The government is weighing the feasibility of building a disposal site in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, where Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., set up by electric utilities, is building a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant.

The company started a study on the disposal of radioactive waste from decommissioning in 2002, building a facility 100 meters under the ground on the site.

The study has been taken over by the Radioactive Waste Management Funding and Research Center, affiliated with the industry ministry.

Still, officials of both Rokkasho village and Aomori Prefecture said they have no intention of accepting any radioactive waste.

Before the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in 2011, the government estimated that 50,000 tons of radioactive waste to be buried underground would be generated from decommissioning and other work by 2030.

The amount is expected to increase, however.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. has decided to decommission four crippled reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant and is also considering decommissioning the remaining two.

The nuclear reactor regulation law, revised after the Fukushima disaster, limits the operating life of a reactor to 40 years, in principle.

An industry ministry official said 15 reactors that began operations at least 30 years ago are expected to be decommissioned in the years to come.

Japan has yet to find a burial site also for high-level radioactive waste from planned reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from power plants, a point underlined by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in his call for a nuclear phase-out.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, affiliated with the industry ministry, solicited municipalities that would host a final disposal facility for radioactive waste in 2002.

The town of Toyo in Kochi Prefecture was the only one willing to accept the facility, but the town government soon retracted its offer in the face of opposition from residents.

The government plans to reprocess all spent nuclear fuel from power plants for recycling, but the completion of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant has suffered repeated delays.

Nuclear plants around the country are holding a combined 17,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel in storage pools, and many pools are expected to be filled up within several years.

Hiroyuki Hosoda, chief of a group of pro-nuclear lawmakers, has countered Koizumi’s argument, suggesting a rotation system under which electric utilities will store spent nuclear fuel at new facilities in their nuclear plants for several years by turns.

"Koizumi said a final disposal facility is the faintest dream, but nuclear power plants have many 'inermediate storage facilities' (for spent nuclear fuel)," Hosoda told a meeting of the group on Nov. 7. “We could explore the possiblity of transferring (storage areas) under several-year agreements."

Leaders of local governments hosting nuclear plants were wary of such ideas even before Hosoda, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and former chief Cabinet secretary, outlined his proposal.

In the early stages of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it was feared that a large amount of radioactive materials would be released if the No. 4 reactor pool lost water and nuclear fuel was exposed.

In April, Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa called on Makoto Yagi, president of Kansai Electric Power Co., to secure intermediate storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel, citing urban areas, possibly Osaka, as candidate locations.

"We have accepted power generation, but we are under no obligation to accept intermediate storage or (final) disposal," he said. "We urge you to consider thermal power plants in electricity-consuming areas, among other locations."

In response, Kansai Electric created a task force in June and also set up a council to promote the project, headed by the president, the following month.

Fukui Prefecture hosts the electric utility's three nuclear plants, including one located in Mihama town.

However, Mihama Mayor Jitaro Yamaguchi acknowledged that it will be impossible to win the support from electricity-consuming areas for Nishikawa's proposal.

Kansai Electric has also assigned only four employees exclusively to the project, although the utility emphasizes company-wide efforts.

All of the nation's 50 nuclear reactors have been taken offline in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Five utilities have applied to the NRA for safety screenings to restart 14 nuclear reactors. Screenings for some reactors are expected to be completed early next year.

(This article was compiled from reports by Shin Matsuura and Hideki Muroya.)

  • 1
submit to reddit
A study is under way on the disposal of radioactive waste from decommissioning at an underground facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. (Provided by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.)

A study is under way on the disposal of radioactive waste from decommissioning at an underground facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. (Provided by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.)

  • A study is under way on the disposal of radioactive waste from decommissioning at an underground facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. (Provided by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.)
  • A spent nuclear fuel storage pool at a Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture (Shin Matsuura)

More AJW