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Rokkasho: Japan’s nuclear reprocessing plant – to keep nuclear industry alive

Rokkasho has grown dependent on the reprocessing complex for nearly all its jobs and income.

“Without Rokkasho, we would not get approval to restart the other reactors—not ever,” says a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Japan’s Nuclear Future, Rokkasho and a hard place The government’s fudge on its nuclear future remains unconvincing Nov 10th 2012 | ROKKASHO   THIS remote north-eastern coastal village in Aomori prefecture would delight a North Korean or Iranian spy. Not because of the rolling countryside, but the uranium-enrichment facility, the plant undergoing testing to make nuclear fuel by reprocessing spent uranium and plutonium, and the stash of a good part of Japan’s stockpiles of more than nine tonnes of separated plutonium—enough, experts say, to make more than 1,000 nuclear warheads.

The Rokkasho plant seems an anomaly in a country that forswearsnuclear weapons and that has shut down all but two of its 54 nuclear reactors. Yet the same government that says it wants to phase out atomic energy by the end of the 2030s also insists that it is committed soon to start reprocessing enough nuclear waste at Rokkasho to provide fuel for Japan’s nuclear-power plants to go flat out into the 2050s.

It does not take much prodding for officials to concede a potential contradiction, big enough to render Japan’s nuclear policy almost meaningless.

The key to understanding the contradiction is this village of 11,000,
and the immense leverage its plant has over national nuclear policy.
Near-countrywide disgust followed the triple meltdown at the Fukushima
Dai-ichi plant last year. Yet, officials say, Rokkasho has helped
force the administration of Yoshihiko Noda to water down its plans for
ending dependency on nuclear power, even though the prime minister’s
popularity is plunging. Polls suggest many of the electorate favour a
firmer anti-nuclear stance.
The plant plays a strong hand, though its completion is 15 years
behind schedule and it has been a financial black hole. Rokkasho’s
mayor, Kenji Furukawa, argues that if the plant were suspended after
{Yen}2.2 trillion ($28 billion) had been spent on it, the blow to a
once-poor fishing and farming village would be devastating. Rokkasho has grown dependent on the reprocessing complex for nearly all its jobs and income.

A stronger economic argument, from the government’s point of view, is
that the plant has been built by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL),
whose largest shareholder is Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), owner of
the stricken Fukushima plant. If the Rokkasho project were to be
scrapped, TEPCO would be on the hook for the part of JNFL’s ¥1
trillion debt that it has guaranteed. Such a move would push TEPCO
even closer towards bankruptcy than the Fukushima accident has already
driven it.

Government officials say that without Rokkasho, Japan might swiftly
have to abandon nuclear power for good. The plant is supposed to
process the spent fuel that is backed up in temporary storage tanks at
nuclear-power plants. If that waste is not processed, and no agreement
is reached on where to store it more permanently, safety concerns
would only grow. “Without Rokkasho, we would not get approval to
restart the other reactors—not ever,” says a member of the ruling
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Since the country’s reactors were
shut down, the political establishment has quietly hoped that a
looming electricity shortage will turn voters back on to nuclear
Then comes the international dimension. Officials say that when the
DPJ made its commitment to phase out nuclear power, the United States,
as well as Britain and France, expressed serious concern. Partly, they
raised proliferation fears, one official says. If Japan, with the
largest separated plutonium stockpile of any official
non-nuclear-weapons state, carried on reprocessing spent fuel while
phasing out the plants, then it would send the wrong message to
potential nuclear rogue states, the Americans argued. To overcome that
worry, the government quickly reassured Japan’s friends that the 2030s
date was more of an objective than a commitment.

Other international objections were more to do with technology and
national prowess. Americans worried that if Japan abandoned its
nuclear programme, the United States would lose the technical
expertise that Japanese firms share with American ones via tie-ups
between Hitachi and General Electric, and Toshiba and Westinghouse. It
might also mean Russia and China, rather than Japan and France, would
take the lead in nuclear technology.

These pressures help explain why the government’s phase-out plans
contain a hint of ambiguity. Future administrations may well take
advantage of this to keep nuclear power. Still, the plans fail to
explain the rationale for reprocessing. Frank von Hippel, a
non-proliferation expert at Princeton University, says it would be
easier and far cheaper for Japan to import uranium rather than
reprocess it, and safer to store nuclear waste in air-cooled concrete
casks rather than ship it to Aomori.

Yet little discussion takes place in Japan about options other than
reprocessing, just as there was little discussion about nuclear safety
until the Fukushima disaster. In Rokkasho itself a local rhubarb
farmer, Keiko Kikukawa, wages a lonely fight against the plant from
her small homestead on the village outskirts. Her protest has gone on
for so long, she says, that all her fellow activists have either died
or are too frail to carry on. No one else in the village, she
continues, listens to her.


November 9, 2012 - Posted by | Japan, reprocessing

1 Comment »

  1. I read your article above apan’s nuclear reprocessing plant – to keep nuclear industry alive. it’s really good .keep posting .

    Comment by Marutinandan Plastic Machinery | April 5, 2013 | Reply

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