Nuclear Waste Problems of Japan


Japan’s first commercial nuclear reactor began operation in 1966. Since then, over a period of many years, spent nuclear fuel was shipped to France’s La Hague Reprocessing Plant, and England’s Sellafield Reprocessing Plant. However, because the utilities have finished shipping the entire contracted amount of spent fuel to these facilities, the situation is now that spent nuclear fuel must be stored in the spent fuel pools on the reactor sites. Because the amount of fuel in the pools has increased to such a point that there is a threat of disrupting the operation of the reactors, the utilities have now started shipping spent fuel to the reprocessing plant currently under construction in Rokkasho in Aomori Prefecture.

The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is scheduled to commence operations in 2005, and is presently 70% completed. However, the spent fuel storage pool has already been completed, and to date, approximately 1,000 assemblies of spent nuclear fuel have been accepted. This is in spite of the fact that plans to use plutonium, which is the goal of reprocessing, have reached a deadlock, due to the 1995 Monju fast breeder reactor accident, and various victories by the anti-nuclear movement with regards to the MOX utilization program. So, it is still unclear whether or not the Rokkasho reprocessing plant will begin operation as scheduled. If that turns out to be the case, immediately the question of what to do with the accepted spent nuclear fuel will come to the forefront.

In addition to the reprocessing plant, there are various other nuclear related facilities which are concentrated in the village of Rokkasho in Aomori Prefecture. One of these facilities is a storage site for vitrified high-level waste from spent nuclear fuel reprocessed at the reprocessing facilities in Britain and France. Japan’s present policy is to dispose of these vitrified high-level waste canisters by burying them 300 meters below the surface in deep geologic stratum.

The vitrified glass canisters that are to be buried, contain nuclear waste which is left after the plutonium and uranium have been taken out of the spent nuclear fuel. This nuclear waste is then hardened with glass and put into stainless canisters. The radiation level is very high, and the decay heat is also high, so before the canisters can be buried underground it has been estimated that they must be temporarily stored for a period of 30 to 50 years. However, it has recently been discovered that the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute, which is the central institute involved in carrying out geological disposal research, has written a report which concludes that after 30 years the temperature of the canisters will not have fallen enough, and a disposal site can not be designed at this point. The report points out that unless the fuel is temporarily stored for at least 100 years, the glass canisters will not have reached the temperature necessary for proceeding with geological disposal. This is a very serious problem because it confirms that the fundamental policy is technically impossible.

At the supposed disposal site, vitrified high-level waste canisters will be lowered from an above ground facility through a vertical shaft into the deep earth where they will be disposed of in numerous disposal shafts.

It should be noted that, not only is it questionable whether or not it will be technically possible to excavate these disposal shafts, what is even more doubtful is the scale of the proposed disposal facility.

According to the present disposal plan draft, the goal is to dispose of more than 40,000 vitrified glass canisters at one disposal site. The reason given for disposing of more than 40,000 canisters at one facility is that the cost per canister becomes cheaper. In order to have enough waste to dispose of 40,000 canisters, approximately 450 tons of plutonium will have to be reprocessed in advance. This figure accounts for enough plutonium to be used in 50,000 nuclear weapons, and shows how totally unrealistic this plan is. Holding plutonium with no plans to use is not acceptable from the point of view of nuclear disarmament, and it is expected that Japan’s “entire volume reprocessing policy” will soon collapse. The policy of reprocessing, which is a precondition for the plan to geologically dispose of vitrified glass canisters, is falling apart.

In fact, countries other than Japan are one after the other shifting away from the reprocessing route, and in countries which are considering high-level waste geological storage, they are considering direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel rather than disposing of waste in the form of vitrified glass canisters. We have repeatedly called upon the Japanese government to consider other options for disposing of high level waste, but they continue to adhere to the policy of disposing of high-level waste in the form of vitrified glass canisters.

Our main argument is that before anything else, the operation of nuclear power plants must be suspended and further high-level waste must be prevented from being produced. The final disposal plan calls for 40,000 vitrified glass canisters to be disposed of, but at present the total amount of spent fuel burned in Japanese reactors when converted into vitrified glass canisters amounts to only 15,000 canisters. If all nuclear reactors are stopped now, the total amount of canisters to be disposed of can be reduced by one third.

Since high level waste has already been produced, it goes without saying that some method of dealing with the waste is necessary, and that deciding where to carry out treatment and disposal of the waste is an imposing experiment for democracy. The conditions for this should be thorough information disclosure and national debate. However, at this point in time both of these conditions are not guaranteed.

To begin with, the entire Japanese archipelago, unlike continental land masses, is a moving belt, and there is no assurance that a spot will be found which will not be affected by earthquakes and be safe for the next ten thousand years.

As for the movement of ground water below the one thousand meter mark, there is still much exploration that needs to be carried out.

Next, as for the breakdown of the 15,000 vitrified high-level waste canisters, in reality, only 574 are actually in Japan at this time. Of the remainder, some are already in the form of liquid waste from reprocessing, but the vast majority is still in the form of spent nuclear fuel. As for fuel that is currently loaded in the reactors, it accounts for 1/2 of this total. Therefore, our second argument is that at least the reprocessing of spent fuel should be immediately suspended.

In spite of the fact that national policy calls for the entire volume of spent fuel to be reprocessed, the reprocessing capacity of the Rokkasho reprocessing facility is not enough to meet this level, and if this policy is to be carried out in its entirety, a second reprocessing facility will have to be built somewhere. It is not necessary to explain how unrealistic it is to build a second reprocessing facility.

So what is being considered now, is “temporary storage” of spent nuclear fuel at some place other than the reactor sites. The “entire volume reprocessing policy” has not been abolished, so they are trying to make it easy to find storage sites by deceptively explaining to the people that “storage will only be temporary until reprocessing can be carried out.” They claim that “at some point in time the fuel will be taken away to be reprocessed.” Since the amount of spent fuel that is produced is greater than the amount of fuel that can be reprocessed at Rokkasho, and there is no possibility of any room occurring for accepting this fuel at Rokkasho, there is no way that this storage can be considered “temporary.” In reality, it must be said that they are intending to little by little change the “entire volume reprocessing policy” and under the name of “temporary storage” store the spent fuel at these sites for half eternity. As stated at the beginning of this paper, because the spent fuel pools are close to becoming full, the utilities are hastily trying to find sites to house “temporary” storage facilities. In the city of Mutsu in Aomori Prefecture, advance inspections have been carried out, and here along with many other localities which are being considered as temporary storage facilities, there are anti-storage movements taking place.

Now let’s shift the focus of this paper to low-level waste. In Rokkasho there is another facility called the “Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Center.” At this facility, waste such as paper and cloth that were used at nuclear power plants and burned into ashes, along with filters that were used for radioactive liquids and gases and other materials are put into drum cans and buried just below the ground surface. In a concrete box 24 meters long and wide, and six meters deep, approximately 5,000 drum cans are inserted and then the entire box is filled with mortar. As of the end of June 2001, 132,291 drum cans have been buried, and the final plan is to accept three million drum cans. As for disposal, gradual management is supposed to take place. The pro-nuclear side has said that management will take place for 300 years. However, “300 years” refers to the end of the third phase, but in fact, after the end of the second phase (approximately 30 years after burial) the public can freely enter the site, and use of the land is also possible. This is quite far from being “300 years” management.

The land around Rokkasho has an abundant supply of ground water, and there are worries that radioactivity which leaks from these drum cans will pollute this ground water.

In 1998, it became apparent that 15,440 drum cans, or 3% of the low-level drum cans being stored at reactor sites had holes in them or were rusted. As for the cause of these leaks, when the drum cans are filled with radioactive materials and mixed with concrete surplus water gets inside and causes corrosion to occur, or in the storage area condensation occurs which corrodes the drum cans. The utilities announced that before shipping the drum cans to Rokkasho, temporary repairs such as putting tape over the holes, or scrapping of the rust with a file and fastening a stainless slab over the are and repainting had been carried out.

The standards are unbelievable. As long as the hole or other damaged area is no larger than 1/4 of the total area of the drum can, and does not circumvent the drum can, and there is at least more than 5 cm to attach the mending slab then it is okay. If there is a “hole” that is the size of 1/4 of the total area of a drum can, not only should it no longer be called a hole, it should also no longer be called a drum can.

Nevertheless, Tokyo Electric started shipping repaired drum cans to Rokkasho by stating, “as long as the drums can hold the material until they arrive in Rokkasho, then once they are buried we do not expect them to contain the radioactive materials.”

In 1999 alone, 4,747 corroded and repaired drum cans had been shipped to Rokkasho. However, after arriving in Rokkasho, traces of liquid were found on the surface of five of the drum cans. In spite of the fact that they passed the inspection after being repaired, and the inspection before being shipped to Rokkasho, they did not last until they arrived at Rokkasho.

We have to seriously think about whether or not it is okay to ship the radioactive waste from the electricity we use to Rokkasho.

Furthermore, as for low-level waste, there is even a bigger issue which awaits us. Because nuclear power plants will be decommissioned in the future, there is the issue of systemizing “cut-off levels” for the disposal of radioactive materials.

During decommissioning of one 1,000 megawatt size nuclear reactor, it is expected that 500-550 thousand tons of waste will have to be disposed of. If all this waste is classified as radioactive waste, then the disposal cost and labor involved will be immense. Cut-off levels refer to deciding that waste with a radioactivity below a certain level does not have to be considered as radioactive waste. For example, for a pressurized water reactor, of the approximately 500,000 tons of waste that is generated, by adopting “cut-off levels”, approximately 490,000 tons of this waste will be classified as “non-radioactive waste”. In the March 1999 Nuclear Safety Commission report about “cut-off levels” the NSC actually calculated the exposure level for humans if “non-radioactive waste” materials from nuclear reactors are reused. For example, in this report, they actually considered what the exposure level would be if metal from nuclear reactors is reused in items such as a frying pan, a pot, a spoon, a knife, a beverage container, or a bed frame.

Not only waste from nuclear power plants, but radioactive waste from hospitals and laboratories is also being considered. There are approximately 5,000 sites throughout the country which deal with radioactive waste from hospitals. As for, research facilities which deal with radioactive materials, there are approximately 180 sites across the country. Currently, the Isotope Society is responsible for collecting the radioactive waste that is produced at these facilities, but because the number of facilities is so great, it is not known whether a sufficient job of managing this responsibility is being done.

As for the waste that is “cut-off” it is expected that this waste will be collected by municipalities or by commercial waste collection. Even waste that is from the radioactive management area could be classified and handled as regular garbage, and this waste could get mixed up with regular waste and radioactive pollution could spread about without people knowing. The Taiwan “Minsei Apartment” lesson must be put to use. In order to prevent this dangerous situation from occurring, we intend to initiate a strong movement against this practice.

Not only in Japan, but all around the world, the disposal of radioactive waste is coming up against a brick wall. For that reason, one occasionally hears from time to time plans to establish an international facility to deal with radioactive waste. The other day, Russia passed a law to allow the import of radioactive waste, and BNFL is investing in a plan to develop such a site in west Australia. In the past, Atsuyuki Suzuki, a member of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission and a professor at Tokyo University participated in this plan, and we are worried about Japan’s involvement in such a plan.

When it comes to the waste issue, the local residents in the area where the waste is being produced often want the waste to be taken somewhere at the earliest possible moment. However, considering the possibility of an accident when transporting nuclear waste, using the principle that nuclear waste should not be moved, perhaps the only choice is to leave it where it is and ensure that it is constantly monitored.

In order to stand up against the pro-nuclear side’s international maneuver, we, the anti-nuclear movement must also share information globally, and join together to make our movement that much stronger.

This report written in September 2001 for NO NUKES ASIA FORUM held in Korea

Special Thanks to Mr Stephen Ready