Fukushima Station Considered as Site for Nuclear Graveyard

Tepco Confirms Meltdown of No. 2, 3 Reactors at Fukushima
The Unit 1, left, and the Unit 2 reactor buildings at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station in Fukushima, Japan, on May 6, 2011. Source: Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Bloomberg

Japan’s atomic energy specialists are discussing a plan to make the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant a storage site for radioactive waste from the crippled station run by Tokyo Electric Power Co.

The Atomic Energy Society of Japan is studying the proposal, which would cost tens of billions of dollars, Muneo Morokuzu, a professor of energy and environmental public policy at the University of Tokyo, said in an interview yesterday. The society makes policy recommendations to the government.

“We are involved in intense talks on the cleanup of the Dai-Ichi plant and construction of nuclear waste storage facilities at the site is one option,” said Morokuzu.

Radiation leaks from the three reactor meltdowns at Fukushima rank the accident on the same scale as the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The 20-kilometer exclusion zone around Fukushima has forced the evacuation of 50,000 households, extermination of livestock and disposal of crops, drawing comparisons with the Ukraine plant.

Areas up to 30 kilometers from Chernobyl remain “a dead zone,” Mykola Kulinich, Ukraine’s ambassador to Japan, said in Tokyo on April 26, the 25th anniversary of the disaster.

Waste Proposal

Tokyo Electric shares have plunged 85 percent since the day before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima plant. The stock today rose 2.2 percent to 322 yen in Tokyo.

Local authorities in Fukushima, 220 kilometers (137 miles) north of Tokyo, aren’t aware of a proposal to make the Dai-Ichi station a nuclear waste storage site, said Hisashi Katayose, an official at the prefectural government’s disaster task force. He declined to comment.

Building storage for radioactive waste at Fukushima could take at least 10 years, said Morokuzu, one of 50 people on a cleanup panel that includes observers from Tokyo Electric and the Trade Ministry. Tokyo Electric would need five years to complete decontamination of the reactors, which includes removal of hydrogen to prevent explosions, he said.

Japan’s three storage facilities for highly radioactive waste are at Rokkasho, at the northern tip of the country’s largest island of Honshu, and a nearby site at Sekinehama. The third site is at Tokaimura in Ibaraki prefecture, near Tokyo.

Intermediary Use

As the sites are for intermediary use, the nation is still searching for a deep underground storage site for the waste, according to the World Nuclear Association. The selection is due to be completed by 2025 and become operational from 2035, the London-based association says.

About 90 percent of the world’s 270,000 tons in used nuclear fuel is stored at reactor sites, mostly in ponds of seven meters deep, such as those exposed at the Fukushima site when hydrogen explosions blew the roofs off reactor buildings.

“Intensive discussion is needed before reaching any conclusion on what to do with the Fukushima site,” said Tetsuo Ito, the head of the Atomic Energy Research Institute at Kinki University in western Japan. “This is one that the government should take responsibility for and make the final decision.”

In the past two weeks, the utility known as Tepco has said fuel rods in reactors 1, 2 and 3 had almost complete meltdowns. That matches U.S. assessments in the early days of the crisis that indicated damage to the station was more severe than Tepco officials suggested.

Melted Rods

“Most of the fuel rods melted and damage to the cores is most severe in the No. 1 reactor, followed by the No. 3 and then No. 2,” spokesman Junichi Matsumoto said in Tokyo May 24.

The utility on April 17 set out a so-called road map to end the crisis in six to nine months. Tepco said it expects to achieve a sustained drop in radiation levels at the plant within three months, followed by a cold shutdown, where core reactor temperatures fall below 100 degrees Celsius.

“We have yet to determine how to deal with the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant site, or how to store reactor parts after decommissioning,” Megumi Iwashita, a spokeswoman for the company said by telephone. “Tepco will determine at the right time taking the government’s advice.”

Waste Disposal

The disposal of high-level waste is more complicated since it needs to be solidified into borosilicate glass and placed inside heavy stainless steel cylinders about 1.3 meters high, the World Nuclear Association said. The casks are then usually transferred to interim storage sites before a long-term underground repository is built.

Besides Japan, Russia, Belgium, China and the U.S. are working on plans to build final storage sites, though progress is slow. Belgium will not begin construction until 2035, according to the association. China expects to select a site by 2020, while France and Russia are still investigating areas.

The U.S. plan to build a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, in 2002 was overturned by President Barack Obama, whose administration terminated the project’s funding this year.

This leaves the U.S. with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which began work in 1999 storing defense-related nuclear waste 2,150 feet below the surface. The facility has a 10,000-year regulatory period, according to the U.S. Department of Energy website.

Three Mile Island

For cleaning up Fukushima, Japan’s disaster has more similarities to the accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in the U.S. in 1979, not Chernobyl, Morokuzu said. Three Mile Island is in a decommissioning process, while Chernobyl was entombed in concrete and steel.

Three Mile Island had a partial meltdown of a reactor, causing the most serious nuclear plant accident in the U.S. Removal of fuel was completed in 1990 and the plant will be decommissioned when the license for an operational reactor at the site expires in 2034.

Japan’s efforts to find other places to store high-level nuclear waste included offering 2 trillion yen ($17 billion) over 60 years to the town of Toyo on Shikoku island to accept a facility. The proposal in 2007 was backed by Mayor Yasuoki Tashima in his re-election bid. He lost.