Japan is preparing to receive its first import of highly radioactive waste since March, when an earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The vessel Pacific Grebe set sail Aug. 3 to Japan from Britain with more than 30 metric tons of radioactive waste on board. The cargo, Japanese spent fuel reprocessed in the U.K., is returning sealed in 76 stainless steel canisters packed into 130-ton containers. It will arrive early next month at the Mutsu-Ogawara port in northern Honshu for delivery to Japan Nuclear Fuel’s nearby Rokkasho storage site.
About 400 kilometers south of the port, thousands of workers are struggling to contain radiation leaks from the meltdown of three reactors at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. plant, which amounts to 300 tons of waste.
The Fukushima disaster and the voyage of the 5,100-ton Pacific Grebe highlights the dilemma facing Japan and the world’s nuclear industry: Radioactive waste is deadly and needs to be locked away for thousands of years, so how can any storage site be guaranteed safe and permanent?
“It’s a very big problem with no acceptable solution,” said Chris Busby, a visiting professor at the University of Ulster’s school of biomedical sciences, who studied Sweden’s nuclear waste storage proposals. “And more waste is being produced every year.”
The issue ensnared U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009 when he canceled plans to build a permanent repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada due to opposition from local residents and politicians. That was after 20 years of work and an investment of $10 billion.
Japan’s Rokkasho isn’t designated as a permanent storage site for nuclear waste -- despite costing almost 3 trillion yen ($39 billion) to build its five facilities on 740 hectares (1,828 acres) and having 2,450 staff on site. Japan won’t have a permanent site operational until the 2040’s, according to Yuichiro Akashi, a spokesman for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan. The group aims to identify a location by 2017, he said.
“It’s a tough situation considering how long it takes to build one,” Akashi said. “A final repository is something we can’t do without so the work will continue.”
Meantime, radioactive waste is piling up and Rokkasho’s storage space for spent nuclear fuel is more than 90 percent full; it has capacity for 3,000 tons and contains 2,834 tons, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. spokesman Hirotake Tatehana said.
Rokkasho, three kilometers from the Pacific coast in Aomori prefecture, stores two main types of waste: spent fuel from reactors, and what’s left over after spent fuel is processed to extract uranium and plutonium for reuse. The latter is what’s arriving on the Pacific Grebe.
Japan contracted the U.K. and France to process its fuel in the 1970s and the waste from the procedure is shipped back for storage. The Pacific Grebe cargo is the second of 11 that will return a total of 900 canisters of waste, each weighing about 400 kilograms. Japan is now building its own spent fuel processing plant at Rokkasho.
For waste from processed spent fuel, Rokkasho can hold 2,880 canisters and has reserve capacity for another 3,000, said Tatehana.
Before Fukushima, Japan’s 54 reactors produced 1,000 tons of spent fuel a year, which after processing would fill Rokkasho’s capacity within four years, according to Bloomberg News calculations. One ton of spent fuel creates one canister of waste, said Joonhong Ahn, a professor in the nuclear engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley.
Japan’s response to the storage space dilemma for spent fuel is the same as the U.S., which is to keep it in reactor buildings.
The fuel is stored in 40-feet deep pools of circulating water that cool the uranium rods removed from reactor cores every three years and block release of radiation. The fuel still contains 20 times the amount of radiation that would kill a human if exposed for one hour, according to U.S. regulators.
“Japan has 1,000 tons of spent fuel coming out of reactors every year, and there are 7 more years before the spent fuel pools are filled,” said Taro Kono, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and opponent of nuclear power.
“Tokyo Electric Power Co. is building a facility that will give us another 5 years, so after 12 years we have no place to put spent fuel,” said Kono. “At that point nuclear reactors will be shut because there’s no place for the fuel.”
Construction of the Tokyo Electric storage site in Mutsu city, about 40 kilometers north of Rokkasho, has been suspended since the Fukushima disaster.
In the U.S., 78 percent of the almost 72,000 tons of spent fuel generated during the past four decades is in cooling pools across the country, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Another 2,000 tons of spent fuel is added each year, the Institute for Public Policy estimates.
Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami showed the vulnerability of spent fuel cooling pools. The tsunami knocked out power, which led to hydrogen explosions that blew the roof off reactor buildings exposing spent fuel pools as they lost cooling water and leaked radiation. Unlike fuel inside a reactor, the pools have no blast-proof containment.
Loss of water in the spent fuel storage pool at the No. 4 reactor was the biggest risk at the Fukushima plant, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chief Gregory Jaczko said March 17.
Reactor pool No. 4 contained 142 tons of fuel that would burn on exposure to the atmosphere and release radiation, Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist for Washington-based Physicians for Social Responsibility, said in a telephone press conference the same day.
Moving spent fuel from pools inside reactor buildings will be a priority, the NRC said in a review of the U.S. nuclear industry after Fukushima.
Companies such as closely held Holtec International Corp., based in Jupiter, Florida, may benefit from that decision. It has a process that stores spent fuel in steel and concrete casks that cost as much as $2 million each, according to the NRC. The casks are typically still stored in nuclear power plants.
After the scrapping of Yucca Mountain as a storage site, Obama set up a commission to find a solution. In a draft report on July 29, it suggested that communities “volunteer to be considered to host a new nuclear-waste management facility.”
Japan’s attempt at that approach didn’t work. In 2007, the mayor of Toyo town on the southern island of Shikoku ran for reelection on a plan to host a nuclear waste dump in exchange for about 2 trillion yen in government and corporate subsidies over 60 years. He lost the election and the plan was rejected.
“The idea that these facilities would be around for thousands of years would not be a popular topic,” said Michael Friedlander, who has 13 years of experience running nuclear power plants in the U.S. “The reality of it is until there is an alternative that’s what we are looking at.”
Japan also faces technological challenges in processing spent fuel. Reprocessing at Rokkasho has been delayed 18 times since 1997 and is now due to start in Oct. 2012, according to Japan Nuclear Fuel.
Another proposed solution to the waste problem is a so-called fast-breeder reactor called Monju, the Japanese god of wisdom, designed to use processed fuel from Rokkasho. That’s also faced repeated delays. In theory, a reactor like Monju would “breed” more fissionable fuel than it consumes and reduce waste. In reality, Monju isn’t working, LDP’s Kono said.
“Back in 1967 the government was saying that a fast breeder reactor would be ready in 20 years, in the 1970s they said it will take 30 years. What will happen in 2050 is that they’ll say it will probably be available in 70 years,” Kono said. “We’re not going to have it, and we know it.”
Never Made Sense
Monju’s problems include a fire in 1995 that shut it for 15 years, and in June Japan’s atomic energy agency extracted a 3.3 metric ton fuel-exchange device that had been stuck inside the reactor vessel for about 10 months following a malfunction.
“The Japanese reprocessing and fast breeder program has never made sense from safety, security or economic perspectives,” Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist for the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in the U.S., said in an e-mail. “It makes even less sense now after Fukushima.”
Elsewhere, the storage search continues. After three decades of research, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Co. picked the town of Forsmark in March to build a repository that will have corrosion-resistant copper canisters buried 500 meters in crystalline basement rock, isolated from human contact for at least 100,000 years. Its analysis covers “periods as long as a million years,” according to the company’s website.
It’s “silly” to assume the waste will not leak from the canisters and pollute the Baltic Sea over such a long period, Ulster University’s Busby said.
While building a storage facility takes two to three years and can be done to withstand known tsunami and earthquakes, the dangers of the future cannot be forecast, U.S. nuclear engineer Friedlander said. Guaranteeing a permanent site is difficult, because no one can prove that it can last thousands of years.
Yet, endless debate on long-term storage doesn’t provide a solution to the nuclear waste that is here and needs to be dealt with, Friedlander said.
“How do you know that that is the strongest earthquake you could ever experience and how do you know that you could provide security for a hundred thousand years? It turns into an academic discussion. How do you know anything?
‘‘You do the best job you can with the information and materials that you have available to you today. And you just decide that you are going to do it.’’