Working for a Nuclear Free Japan -- Green Action
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Japanese nuclear power plant waste

Japanese nuclear power plant waste

Japanese commercial nuclear power plants began operation in 1970. Currently there are 53 nuclear power plants in operation. To date close to 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel has been generated by Japan's nuclear power program.

Nuclear waste from nuclear power plants consists of materials such as spent (used) nuclear fuel, clothing and equipment contaminated with radioactivity as part of the operation of the nuclear power plant, and the nuclear power plant itself when its operation has come to an end.

In addition to nuclear waste from nuclear power plants, there is also other nuclear waste generated in Japan, primarily from medical use of radioactive materials.

The quantity of fission products (spent nuclear fuel) produced each year at a full-sized commercial nuclear power plants is massive. A total of approximately 50,000 times the fission products of the Hiroshima bomb are created by Japanese nuclear power plants each year, and this for the most part is cumulative, in other words the material remains radioactive. Most of this waste is being temporarily stored at nuclear power plant sites and must remain segregated from the natural environment.

Japan's nuclear waste management policy

Japan has a policy of reprocessing all nuclear waste. The government and electric utilities state that this is the best policy for nuclear waste management since this process extracts the most highly radioactive materials and concentrates them into a relatively small volume as high level radioactive waste (HLW). The HLW is then vitrified (glassified) and put into stainless steel canisters. Japanese national law calls for permanent disposal of this high level waste in a deep geological final repository in a yet undesignated place in Japan.

The government estimates that approximately 31,000 canisters of HLW will be generated by nuclear power plant operation by the year 2010. Since a final repository site is yet to be determined for the high level waste, the vitrified HLW canisters now being generated by reprocessing in Europe are being shipped to Aomori Prefecture for temporary above ground storage for 30-50 years.

What is wrong with Japan's nuclear waste management policy?

Japan's nuclear waste management policy is unsustainable and in deep trouble because it is dependent on reprocessing with no alternative plan formulated.

Reprocessing is a method of chemically extracting plutonium and unused uranium from spent nuclear fuel. However, Japan will not be able to come close to consuming the plutonium this would extract. If all the plutonium in Japanese spent nuclear fuel accumulated thus far were extracted, it would amount to about 160 tons. In addition, depending on the amount of electricity generated by nuclear power in the future, there would be an additional eight to a dozen tons of plutonium created in spent nuclear fuel each year, which would also then be extracted by reprocessing. (As a comparison, the total amount of plutonium in all the nuclear weapons worldwide is about 250 tons.)

Since plutonium is nuclear weapons capable material, it cannot be stockpiled. With insufficient demand for the plutonium either for fast breeder reactor fuel or as MOX fuel for conventional nuclear power plants, pressure is certain to mount against continued reprocessing. Unable to continue to reprocess, Japan's nuclear waste policy would be thrown into crisis.

Reprocessing increases the volume of nuclear waste which must be stored. The increase occurs because the chemicals process for separating the plutonium, uranium, and HLW from spent nuclear fuel generates much greater volumes of waste than the original volume of the spent nuclear fuel. Although most of the radioactivity is concentrated in the high level waste, reprocessing is responsible for a substantial increase in the total volume of low and intermediate level waste which must then be dealt with.

All waste generated from overseas reprocessing is to eventually be returned to Japan and this will involve hundreds of sea shipments. The Japanese government, however, does not even have an estimate of the volumes involved nor does it have any plans for where to put the material once it arrives.

As of March 31, 2002, spent nuclear fuel totaling 440 tons has been shipped to the spent nuclear fuel pools at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant from nuclear power plant sites. An additional 403 tons is expected to be shipped in fiscal 2002. However, more spent nuclear fuel is being generated than there is space at Rokkasho, and the Japanese government and electric utilities are looking for potential sites to build interim storage facilities in order to store the overflow of spent nuclear fuel.

Aomori Prefecture is concerned that without a final repository site selected and without the implementation of the pluthermal program, it will become the final de-facto repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. In turn, local sites being targeted for interim storage are concerned that if reprocessing at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori does not go forward as planned, they in turn may become a de-facto waste dump because the spent fuel stored at their sites would not be able to be shipped to Rokkasho. In the meantime, the prefectures with nuclear power plants are stating they do not want to extend nuclear waste storage space any further.

Moreover, with some nuclear power plants now over 30 years old, Japan is facing the concrete prospect of having to decommission nuclear power plants and deal with the waste generated from their dismantlement. The government and electric utilities are aiming to install legislation and subsequent regulation that would enable some of this material to go to non-nuclear industrial waste sites or be recycled into consumer products. With the Japanese public extremely sensitive to the dangers of radiation, there is sure to be strong opposition from both citizens and local governments.

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