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Japan: Reprocessing and MOX

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 1, 2000) The Tokai pilot-scale reprocessing plant, which has been closed since an explosion in 1997, is expected to re-open soon. Construction of the full-scale plant at Rokkasho is proceeding, and ten Japanese utilities have decided to build a MOX plant adjacent to it. However, the delays in plans to load MOX fuel into Japanese PWRs and continuing problems with the Monju fast breeder reactor give rise to unanswered questions

(539.5222) WISE Amsterdam -The Tokai reprocessing plant was planned to re-open last year, but the re-opening was delayed because of the criticality accident at the nearby JCO Co. nuclear fuel plant, in which two workers died and hundreds of staff and local people were irradiated. Since then, residents have become much more concerned about the nuclear industry. The percentage of residents who consider atomic power to be "dangerous" jumped from 12 percent before the accident to 54 percent in December 1999. Nevertheless, Ibaraki Governor Masaru Hashimoto and Tokai Mayor Tatsuya Murakami decided on 10 November to approve the resumption of operations at the reprocessing plant, which is operated by the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC). One of the first tasks of the plant will be to reprocess the uranium solution from the criticality accident at the JCO plant, according to a JNC spokesman.

Meanwhile, construction of a full-scale, commercial reprocessing plant at Rokkasho is continuing and is currently about 50% complete, with a target of final completion in 2005. Originally, the plant was expected to be completed by 1997. Construction costs have tripled since the original estimate, and the most recent estimate is 2.14 trillion yen (US$19.75 billion).

Japan currently sends its spent fuel to La Hague and Sellafield for reprocessing. The intention was that the resulting plutonium would be incorporated into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel and sent back to Japan. However, last year's scandal in which falsified quality control data was given for MOX fuel destined for Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Takahama nuclear power plant has caused concern in the Japanese nuclear industry.

The new plant would enable Japan to reprocess its own spent fuel. In the meantime, ten Japanese utilities want to ship about 600 tons of spent fuel during the years 2001-2004 to COGEMA's reprocessing plant at La Hague. The idea is that COGEMA will train Japanese workers to carry out the reprocessing so that they can operate Rokkasho once it is completed. However, the French environment minister Dominique Voynet said she will not endorse any new reprocessing contracts between COGEMA and Japanese utilities because such contracts would violate the agreement between the Green Party, of which Voynet is a member, and the ruling Socialist Party.


Monju safety fears
CNIC has also obtained inside information that raises safety fears about re-starting the Monju fast breeder reactor, which has been closed since the sodium leak and fire in 1995. The information concerns the test equipment used to examine for cracks in the steam generator tubes. Such cracks are potentially disastrous, since the steam generator tubes separate the liquid sodium primary coolant from the water/steam secondary coolant. If these two were to come into contact there would be a severe explosion. CNIC's report claims that the Eddy Current Test equipment used to check for cracks in the tubes does not work properly, and that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has given up on its development.

Ministers of Caribbean countries expressed concerns at the shipments at a Japan/Caribbean ministers meeting held on 8 November 2000. The Japanese foreign minister, Kono, tried to reassure them that the transport was safe, but the Caribbean ministers pointed out that even the perceived danger of radioactive materials being transported through the Caribbean could keep tourists from visiting the region.

The Pacific Islands Forum countries, on the other hand, have been offered a US$10 million "good will" trust fund by Japan. The trust fund would be used to cover the costs of the initial response to incidents during shipment of radioactive materials through the region, but in the meantime, the interest on the fund could be used to finance development projects in the fields of energy, environment and tourism.

As well as waste transports from Japan, there are also plans to ship MOX to Japan. Two armed nuclear transport ships, Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal, have undergone sea trials with a view to being used to transport MOX fuel from Dessel in Belgium to Japan. This is despite the fact that a Japanese district court is still considering whether an earlier batch of MOX fuel also produced by Belgonucleaire contains manipulated and falsified quality control data.

Alongside the reprocessing plant, the utilities have decided to build a MOX plant, which they hope to complete in 2009. By producing MOX in Japan, the nuclear industry hopes to avoid the problems caused by the MOX data falsification scandals abroad.

However, despite this decision, a question mark still hangs over Japanese reprocessing and MOX. Reprocessing in Japan is estimated to be up to three times as expensive as reprocessing in Britain or France. Also, there is the problem of what to do with the plutonium. Japan has made an international commitment not to have surplus plutonium. Without the MOX plant, Japan has no means of using the plutonium from reprocessing, since the Monju fast breeder reactor is still closed (see box). The utilities have yet to find a source of funds to build the MOX plant, whose estimated cost is 120 billion yen (US$1.1 billion.)

In the short term, the utilities are more interested in Rokkasho as a place to store the spent fuel. During the construction of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, priority was given to completing the storage pool for spent fuel. The storage pools at some Japanese nuclear power plants are nearly full. The spent fuel may be sent to Rokkasho and kept there in interim storage. There is a danger that this storage may become semi-permanent if escalating costs and other problems continue.


  • Mainichi Shimbun, 11 November 2000
  • Reuters, 13, 14 and 15 November 2000
  • CNIC web site;
  • Asahi News Service, 31 October 2000
  • Greenpeace press release, 2 November 2000
  • NuclearFuel, 13 November 2000
  • The Japan Times Online, 12 November 2000
  • Pacific New Bulletin, November 2000

Contact: Citizens' Nuclear Information Centre (CNIC), 3F Kotobuki Bldg., 1-58-15 Higashi-nakano, Nakano-ku, Tokyo 164-0003, Japan.
Tel: +81-3-5330-9520; Fax: +81-3-5330-9530;
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