The Other Nuclear Crisis Quietly Mounting In Japan [News Report]

by Avinash Saxena

In many ways the 11,000 villagers in Rokkasho, on the northeastern tip of Japan’s main island, are blessed. While other towns in the remote region are run-down and financially strapped, Rokkasho boasts gleaming public buildings, immaculate recreation facilities and free picture-phones in every home. Rare in a land of massive public debt, its government has a $100 million surplus. At $170,000 per capita income is triple Tokyo’s.

The reason for Rokkasho’s good fortune is its decision three decades ago to host a nuclear waste dump, as well as uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing plants. When the plans were hatched in the 1980s, Japan was the economic wonder of the world, and Rokkasho was held up as a “dream project.” Spearheaded by Japan’s political and power industry bosses, it was envisioned as harnessing the nation’s technical and financial prowess to complete the nuclear fuel cycle–a circuit in which conventional nuke plants, fast-breeder reactors and Rokkasho’s recycling facilities would create inexhaustible energy.

These days the dream project looks more like a study in how overwrought ambition and money politics created a financial nightmare. Rokkasho is operated by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL), an industry consortium led by Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. Up to now it has remained in the testing stage and taken delivery of what is believed to be only a small amount of waste.

The power industry’s plan to send many tons of spent fuel to Rokkasho from its 54 domestic nuclear plants has been scuttled by 18 safety-related delays so far in the start of uranium reprocessing. The delays, in turn, have left Japan’s nuke plants sitting on 13,000 tons of waste. Unless Rokkasho begins reprocessing, they could run out of storage capacity within a matter of years. JNFL now hopes to begin reprocessing in October 2012–after spending another $2.5 billion. Plutonium reprocessing and fast-breeder reactors, which other nations have largely abandoned, are more doubtful still.

That was true even before the Mar. 11 earthquake set off a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant, halfway between Rokkasho and Tokyo. Under a nuclear policy review ordered by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Rokkasho is likely to get a close look; one type of fuel it aims to produce, mixed oxides of uranium and plutonium, or mox, was introduced into Fukushima’s No. 3 reactor last year and is a top contamination concern.

One thing that’s not reviewable is the money already consumed by Rokkasho. Costs have exceeded estimates by threefold and stand at $27.5 billion. Billions more would be needed to fulfill its early ambitions.

 

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