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Japan’s nuclear recycling plant, a probable failure

“an 80 to 90 percent chance of the [nuclear recycling] plant being a failure”

even if Rokkasho gets up and running, two problems remain: it alone cannot recycle enough fuel to stop the waste mounting up, and there is still the issue of burying the vitrified waste permanently in a crowded, quake-prone country.

Beyond Fukushima Japan faces deeper nuclear concernsVancouver Sun, By RISA MAEDA, Reuters February 24, 2012 TOKYO – On a hillside in northern Japan, wind turbines slice through the cold air, mocking efforts at a nearby industrial complex to shore up the future of the demoralised nuclear power industry.

The wind-power farm at Rokkasho has sprung up close to Japan’s first nuclear reprocessing plant, a Lego-like complex of windowless buildings and steel towers, which was supposed to have started up 15 years ago but is only now nearing completion.

Dogged by persistent technical problems, it is designed to recycle spent nuclear fuel and partly address a glaring weakness in Japan’s bid to restore confidence in the industry, shredded last year when a quake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi power station to the south, triggering radioactive leaks and mass evacuations.
But the Rokkasho project is too little, too late, according to critics who say Japan is running so short of nuclear-waste storage that the entire industry risks shutdown within the next two decades unless a solution is found.

“You don’t build a house without a toilet,” said Jitsuro Terashima, president of the Japan Research Institute think tank and member of an expert panel advising the national government on energy policy after the Fukushima disaster….
Long-term storage of highly radioactive waste is a problem common to all nuclear-powered nations, including the United States, but experts say Japan’s unstable geology and densely populated terrain mean that its challenges are far bigger.

The Rokkasho plant is due to finally start up in October, barely 19
months after the radioactive clouds at Fukushima sparked the world’s
worst nuclear crisis in 25 years — a crisis exacerbated by the 1,800
tonnes of spent nuclear-fuel rods being stored at the power station
when the disaster struck.

As Japan approaches the anniversary of the March 11 quake, the nuclear
power industry, which just over a year ago supplied a third of its
power, is virtually paralysed. All but two of the country’s 54
reactors are offline.

The reactors have steadily been shut down for maintenance, unable to
restart until they meet new stress tests that aim to determine if
power stations in the future can withstand the kind of terrifying
natural force unleashed on Fukushima: a magnitude 9 quake and a wall
of water more than 10 metres (30 ft) high.

Effectively, though, the utilities have to do more than pass stress
tests; they have to finally convince local governments that the waste
problems will be resolved, not continue to mount up inside power
plants lined up along the Japanese coast like radioactive warehouses,
exposed to the risk of tsunamis.

At Fukushima, where highly radioactive spent fuel rods were crammed
mostly into pools of water inside the complex, the disaster knocked
out the cooling system and led to a fire in one of the pools. At the
time, it was a bigger concern than even the risk of a reactor
the waste problem is now so acute that experts say the facility will
only buy Japan an additional five to 10 years before it has to
implement more lasting but politically sensitive solutions, such as
permanent burial.

If Japan fails to find a solution to its waste-fuel problem, the
entire nuclear power industry could one day grind to a halt.

“Even if the Rokkasho plant becomes operational, we cannot help but
meet the deadline (for storage space to run out) in 15 to 20 years,
just a little longer than about 10 years without it,” said Hideyuki
Ban, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center and also
a member of a government panel studying the nuclear fuel cycle.

“We think there is an 80 to 90 percent chance of the plant being a
failure,” he adds.

Rokkasho’s record is not encouraging……
Ultimately though, even if Rokkasho gets up and running, two problems
remain: it alone cannot recycle enough fuel to stop the waste mounting
up, and there is still the issue of burying the vitrified waste
permanently in a crowded, quake-prone country.

“When the (safety and political) conditions are met and some reactors
are restarted … we still have another high hurdle to clear. That is
storage of spent fuel running out,” said Ryutaro Kono, chief economist
at BNP Paribas Securities and also a member of the government advisory

With the aim of recycling more spent fuel, Japan had planned to
separate plutonium at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant and combine it
with uranium to produce mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. JNFL plans to build a
MOX-fuel facility close to the reprocessing plant, with a scheduled
launch date of 2016.

This would in turn lessen the need for imported uranium.

But this idea, along with Japan’s entire energy policy, is under
review after the disaster at Fukushima. The ruined station had used
MOX fuel, which raised grave concerns for human health because of the
presence of dangerous plutonium isotopes…..

February 25, 2012 - Posted by | Japan, reprocessing

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