What is Reprocessing?
When spent (used) nuclear fuel is extracted from a reactor at a nuclear power plant, it contains a significant amount of unused (unirradiated) uranium, plutonium, and other fission products. Reprocessing is a method of chemically separating the plutonium, unused uranium, and highly toxic high-level nuclear waste. According to government policy, the plutonium and uranium extracted by reprocessing is to be re-used as fuel at nuclear power plants.
Japan's nuclear policy calls for reprocessing of all spent nuclear fuel. However, because Japan lacks a large-scale domestic reprocessing facility, Japanese electric utilities shipped over 7100 tons of spent nuclear fuel to reprocessing facilities in France and Britain over the past two decades. The spent fuel was sent to the Cogema La Hague reprocessing facility in France, and the British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) Sellafield reprocessing facility in the United Kingdom.
Commercial nuclear power plants have been operating in Japan since 1970. Currently Japan has 53 commercial nuclear power plants which produce approximately 1000 tons of spent nuclear fuel annually. As of March 31, 2001, there were 9445 tons of spent nuclear fuel in storage at nuclear power plant sites in Japan. In order to deal with this spent nuclear fuel domestically, a large scale reprocessing plant is being constructed by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL) at Rokkasho-mura in Aomori Prefecture.
The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant has a maximum reprocessing capacity of 800 tons a year. Japanese electric utilities currently have contracts with JNFL to reprocess 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel over a 15 year period. However, it is not clear when, if ever, the facility will begin to operate. When construction of the facility began in 1993, it was scheduled to be completed by January 2001. However, due to construction delays the estimated completion date is now July 2005. Nevertheless, the facility's spent nuclear fuel storage pools have already been completed for some time, and as of March 31, 2002, spent nuclear fuel amounting to 440 tons have already been shipped from nuclear power plant sites to the facility. A further 403 tons is expected to be shipped in fiscal 2002.
What's Wrong with Reprocessing?
First of all, reprocessing plants emit massive quantities of nuclear materials into the air and sea. Radioactive emissions from UK's Sellafield and France's La Hague reprocessing plants have been polluting the Northern Atlantic Ocean and the air around these facilities for years. Radioactive materials can cause leukemia and other forms of cancer. In one day of operation, the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant would release approximately one year's worth of radioactive emissions of a nuclear power plant.
Second, because plutonium is used in the production of nuclear weapons, reprocessing raises nuclear proliferation concerns. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), plutonium reprocessed from spent nuclear fuel is classified as "nuclear weapons usable material." Currently, Japan has more than 32 tons of surplus plutonium in storage in Europe, and several tons in storage in Japan. Considering that it only takes a few kilograms of plutonium to make a nuclear weapon, storage of these kinds of quantities of plutonium and separation of even greater quantities is a nuclear proliferation concern. If the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant were to operate at full capacity, it would separate out approximately seven to eight tons of plutonium per year.
Third, there is a problem of economics. Because reprocessing is a very complicated chemical process requiring large-scale technical machinery, it is very expensive to carry out. The Rokkasho reprocessing facility was originally estimated to cost 760 billion yen to construct, but current estimates place construction costs at 2.14 trillion yen. In addition, operating expenses, maintenance expenses, and decommissioning expenses must also be taken into consideration. If all these expenses are totaled, the cost of reprocessing one ton of spent nuclear fuel at Rokkasho will be over 4 billion yen. This is sure to increase the cost of electricity generation in Japan.
Why does Japan Continue to Reprocess?
Japanese utilities continue to adhere to reprocessing because at the present time reprocessing facilities are the only place for them to send their spent nuclear fuel. Due to a lack of storage space at individual reactor sites, the spent nuclear fuel temporarily stored in spent fuel pools at these sites must be removed in order to make room for new spent fuel to be taken out of the reactors. Without a place to send spent nuclear fuel, some reactors would have to be shut down because of lack of storage space. Clearly, reprocessing and the pluthermal program are little more than a makeshift solution for spent fuel storage problems.
Rokkasho is the first large-scale reprocessing facility constructed in a non-nuclear weapon state. Because reprocessing is nuclear weapons technology and operation of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant makes Japan capable of separating massive quantities of plutonium, there is concern that Japan will appear to other nations to have secret intentions of possessing nuclear weapons capabilities, or may even actually have those intentions. The Japanese government and utilities deny this, insisting that this is not the case and the plant's design is such that uranium would be mixed in with the plutonium before it emerges from the reprocessing process.
Green Action's Activities
In December 2001, Green Action and Citizen's Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), based in Tokyo submitted a public questionnaire to all domestic electric utilities concerning their reprocessing and plutonium utilization plans. Based on the answers we received, Green Action prepared charts which show past reprocessing results and future reprocessing plans, as well as the amount of money the utilities have invested in the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. [Coming soon on our web site: Electric Utility Public Questionnaire.]
Green Action will continue to work with other Japanese and international citizen's groups to prevent operation of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant.