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Japan’s nuclear waste pools, the nuclear restart, and the terrorism risks in Northeast Asia

text-risk-assessmentJapan’s choices have global significance for the threat of nuclear terrorism, and therefore demands serious consideration as part of a national and international risk-benefit assessment of the future evolution of nuclear power
Nuclear terrorism risks in Northeast Asia: Japan’s reactor restarthighly-recommended and spent fuel Nautilus Peace and Security NAPS Net Special Report by Peter Hayes 23 March 2015 


In this report Peter Hayes examines the risk of nuclear terrorism in Northeast Asia with particular reference to Japan. He states that Japan is no more immune to nuclear terrorism than it was to a catastrophic reactor accident. In this context, the combination of safety and security concerns represented by spent fuel pools at reactors is a critical variable in the risk profile arising from the threat of nuclear terrorism. Japan’s choices have global significance for the threat of nuclear terrorism, and therefore demands serious consideration as part of a national and international risk-benefit assessment of the future evolution of nuclear power.

Peter Hayes is Co-founder and Executive Director of Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability; Honorary Professor at the Center for International Security Studies, Sydney University, Australia.



In the post-Fukushima era, spent fuel management is recognized as a significant contributor to increased risk of nuclear terrorism. In the immediate weeks after the tsunami-earthquake, the situation at the spent fuel pools at Fukushima unit 1 was dire. The pools were damaged by debris from the hydrogen explosion, inaccessible due to intense local radiation from the melted reactor core, and losing coolant, underscored the argument that spent fuel pools are potential sources of radiological risk in themselves.   The orthodox definition of nuclear terrorism based on the diversion of fissile material for use in a nuclear or radiological weapon, with similar potential scales of damage to entire cities as releases from a spent fuel pool, is only part of the nuclear risk story. The Fukushima incident conjoined the issue of nuclear terrorism conceived of as diversion and use of fissile material and nuclear weapons/nuclear energy dual-use technology with possible radiological attack via a dirty bomb or attack on nuclear facilities or on radiological materials in transport.


The Japanese authorities themselves recognized this linkage: “The accident revealed the possibility that terrorism at a nuclear facility may have the same serious effects on society [as a natural disaster].”[1] Indeed, Japanese nuclear security authorities now recognize not only that nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities in which nuclear fuel or nuclear fuel materials are stored may be attacked, but that attacks also may target ancillary support systems such as power supply, and reactor core and spent fuel coolant supply, and that terrorists, including insiders, may attack at these points— with potentially the same devastating effect—or worse—than the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 had on the Fukushima plants.[2]

Post-Fukushima Response

After Fukushima, the global nuclear security community recognized that spent fuel management practices might be revised to reduce the direct risk of radiological release from spent fuel pools, thereby inadvertently increasing the risk of attack on the spent fuel itself by non-state actors on the one hand, and the risk of diversion of separated plutonium or spent fuel for terrorist purposes on the other. This concern proved valid. In Japan, the focus was correctly on stabilizing the spent fuel pools (completed at Fukushima Daichi Unit 4 only in December 2014) by providing cooling at Fukushima while reviewing the safety of the shutdown reactor fleet, none of which as of time of writing (March 2015).

Four years after the accident, about two thirds of the fuel assemblies have been removed from the damaged buildings and placed into dry cask storage on the reactor site.[3] The generic issue of spent fuel vulnerability, however, has yet to be addressed in Japan, including the commercial practice of increasing density of spent fuel pools beyond the evaporative cooling capacity of pools suffering from loss of coolant for whatever reason, including non-state attack. The new Nuclear Regulatory Authority views this issue to be a commercial choice made by utilities and has not systematically reviewed the vulnerabilities of pool racking density. There is little evidence that the risk of nuclear terrorism has played a role in these decisions to date.

Internationally, the US National Academy’s Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident study deferred spent fuel issues to 2015;[4] the IAEA Fukushima accident study referred to the spent fuel racking density issue but did not investigate it;[5] the US-Russian joint study on nuclear terrorism identified the spent fuel density issue but issued no specific recommendation except that it deserved further study;[6] and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted to not treat the vulnerability to terrorism as deserving separate analysis and management nor justifying accelerated transfer to dry cask storage—although the then Chair of the Commission Alison MacFarlane voted against this decision.[7] Only in China has the nuclear power industry adopted an inherently safe reduced racking density for spent fuel pools, partly in response to Fukushima.[8] South Korea and Taiwan, with spent fuel pools already nearly full with dense racking, remain at risk, although South Korea has begun to use dry cask storage at a few reactors. Only utility in Japan has announced quietly that it will use dry cask storage on site (at retired units Hamaoka 1 and 2).

In Japan, decisions related to spent fuel disposition, including spent fuel pool vulnerability, are stalled due to multiple constraints that work against open enquiry and policy change. First, the underlying cultural foundation of the nuclear power industry in Japan has come unstuck due to the massive, undeniable, and on-going impact on civil society arising from the event itself. But the fundamental political deal between the state, the nuclear utilities, and local host communities known as the “nuclear village” has not been reconstituted or revised since Fukushima. In this political (and economic) arrangement, local communities host nuclear power plants and the nuclear reprocessing sites in return for large subsidies while the government commits to removing the spent fuel to an unspecified interim storage site at an undefined date.

Consequently, local communities exercise significant veto power over spent fuel facility siting decisions, including shifting waste from spent fuel pools to dry cask on-site storage in Japan. Indeed, 69 percent of 155 local prefectures and municipalities located within 30 kilometers of nuclear plants say that local governments should have a say in the startup of nuclear power plants whereas only 9 percent of the 32 leaders of prefectures and municipalities that host nuclear facilities favor such a say. [9] Notably, the latter receive large payments from nuclear utilities and are mostly pro-startup as a result. The result is the number of nuclear reactor restarts now hangs in the balance.[10] A broad-based civil society network stokes public opinion that is strongly against restarts, and is pitted against the orchestrated pro-restart positions of national politicians.[11]

Second, the nuclear power industry itself is snared in a web of interdependent uncertainties …….

……..Japan’s choices have global significance for the threat of nuclear terrorism, and therefore demands serious consideration as part of a national and international risk-benefit assessment of the future evolution of nuclear power.


March 25, 2015 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, safety

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