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Japan’s power companies resist govt call to make safer storage for spent nuclear fuel

Utilities balk at safer storage of spent nuclear fuel to avoid ‘wasted investment’ by Ryuta Koike and Toshio Kawada. January 04, 2015 THE ASAHI SHIMBUN Power companies have resisted government calls to construct safer storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel and are instead waiting for a fuel reprocessing plant to finally start running after nearly two decades of delays.

The utilities say that building dry storage facilities, which hold spent nuclear fuel encased in metal or concrete casks, could prove a waste of money if the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture begins operations and takes all the spent fuel off their hands.

They also cite concerns in communities that host nuclear reactors that dry storage facilities could lead to permanent storage there.

Under Japan’s basic energy plan approved by the Cabinet in April last year, the central government promotes the construction and use of dry storage facilities.

Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, has repeatedly referred to the importance of such facilities, which are deemed safer and less expensive to operate than the traditional method of keeping spent nuclear fuel submerged in storage pools at nuclear plant.

Spent fuel pools are usually located next to reactors for swift transport because the fuel rods continue to be highly radioactive and emit heat after use.

The risk of using storage pools was exposed when all power sources were lost at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11, 2011.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the plant, not only had to deal with three reactor meltdowns, but it was also forced to take measures to prevent the release of radiation from spent fuel storage pools at the site.

nuclear-spent-fuel-pool

Under the dry storage method, the encased spent fuel is cooled with circulating air at a facility built separate from the reactor building. Dry storage is mainly used for spent fuel whose radioactive decay heat has already dropped to a certain level.

One big advantage that dry storage has over storage pools is that it can continue to cool spent fuel even after a power failure in the event of a nuclear accident or natural disaster.

In fact, spent fuel in a dry storage facility at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant did not suffer any major damage in the 2011 disaster, according to TEPCO.

The only other nuclear power station currently equipped with a dry storage facility within its plant site is Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture.

Chubu Electric Power Co. plans to set up a dry storage facility at its Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka Prefecture in fiscal 2018. That plan was hatched before the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

But no other utility in Japan has moved in that direction despite the government’s urging………..

The biggest reason the utilities are hesitant to build dry storage facilities is that the government has kept alive the Rokkasho nuclear fuel reprocessing plant project, despite its many problems.

According to the project, the Rokkasho plant will take in the utilities’ spent nuclear fuel and reprocess it for reuse at nuclear reactors around Japan.

The Rokkasho plant was originally scheduled to open in 1997. However, the start of operations has been delayed 21 times because of technical glitches, human error and safety issues.

Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., operator of the Rokkasho plant, has postponed the completion date to March 2016.

Still, electric power companies do not want to spend on dry storage facilities now because they believe the plant will start running and alleviate them of their spent fuel problems.

“Even if we build a dry storage facility, it would likely be a wasted investment,” said an official in the nuclear power industry, alluding to the Rokkasho plant.

The utilities say they are also concerned that building dry storage facilities could stoke fears among nearby residents and local officials that hazardous spent fuel would remain in their neighborhoods for a prolonged period……..

Tadahiro Katsuta, associate professor of nuclear energy policy at Meiji University, said the central government should provide incentives to spur utilities to shift to dry storage facilities.

“When the safety of a nuclear plant is at issue, it is obvious that dry storage is more reliable (than pools) since it does not require emergency measures to safeguard the facility in the event of an accident,” Katsuta said. “Financial benefits and setting a limit on the storage period should be considered.” http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201501040021

January 5, 2015 - Posted by | Japan, safety

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