Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility: NRA Breaks off Regulatory Standard Conformity Inspection
The regular meeting of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) on October 11, 2017 indicated multiple safety code violations by Japan Nuclear Fuel, Limited (JNFL), operator of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, including problems with rainwater flowing into the reprocessing plant’s emergency power supply buildings and ventilation duct corrosion in the uranium concentration facilities. The safety codes are a set of bylaws that nuclear power plant (NPP) operators are supposed to observe in their work. These govern inspections, maintenance and supervision, basic items for ensuring safety such as educating employees on operational safety, and methods of responding in the case of accidents. The operators are required to prepare a safety code prior to commencing operations and have it approved by the NRA. It has been pointed out that these minimal rules are not being observed at any of JNFL’s facilities (the Rokkasho reprocessing facility has not received formal authorization for operation, but safety regulations for test operations are being applied).
JNFL’s President Kudo, who attended the meeting, apologized for his company’s sloppy safety management system, saying, “We will delay submission of the required paperwork for the reprocessing plant’s new regulatory standard conformity inspection for the time being.” For all practical purposes, this amounts to a request by the business for suspension of the conformity inspection. In response, the NRA decided to suspend inspections, including hearings, for all of JNFL’s facilities (reprocessing plant, MOX fuel plant and storage facilities for high-level vitrified waste).
No Inspections of Emergency Power Supply
During the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in March 2011, a tsunami penetrated the buildings that held the emergency generators, submerging them. The result was a total station blackout that progressed into the nuclear fuel meltdown. The new regulatory standards that went into effect in 2013 place importance on ensuring the safety of emergency power sources, drawing on the biggest lesson from the accident. An emergency power source for the spent fuel pool and another one for the plant itself (two diesel generators with capacities of about 7,000 kW each) had been installed at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant.
These diesel generators for the plant had been installed above ground on the first floor, while the pumps supplying the fuel to them were on the first basement floor underground. In August 2017, an accident occurred at the plant in which 800 liters of rainwater pooled in a piping pit outside the building that held the fuel supply pipes flowed into the building. JNFL, however, was lax in their response to the accident, saying, “It has no effect on the facility.” An investigation performed later, however, revealed that 1) in the 14 years since the facilities were built, not once had the inspection port for the piping pit been opened, and no inspection of the pipes had been conducted; 2) inspection results were entered into the inspection logbook as prescribed, as “no abnormalities found”—JNFL had mistaken a cable pit for the piping pit adjacent to it; 3) although photos were taken during site inspections in which traces of leakage could be distinguished, reports were written that said no problems had been found; and so on. This conduct is in complete violation of the safety code.
An accident at Chugoku Electric Power Co.’s Shimane NPP that resulted from corrosion of ventilation ducts motivated the NRA to instruct all NPP operators to inspect the ventilation ducts. JNFL began checking the supply and exhaust ducts at its uranium enrichment plant in January 2017. The results showed that seven of 14 draft chambers (devices providing local ventilation) and one ventilation duct hood installed in the attic of the plant’s analysis room were practically nonfunctional, with holes of 20 cm2 in the ducts due to corrosion. These ducts were made of galvanized steel, but rust, discoloration and corrosion were recognized in 48 places overall in the ducts. Although the ventilation system of the quality analysis equipment in the analysis room (circular ducts made of PVC with a diameter of 25 cm) are supposed to be connected to the buildings’ ventilation system via ventilation ducts, they had not been connected anywhere. JNFL had not inspected these ducts even once in the 25 years since 1992, when it began running the plant.
For 14 years in one case, and 25 in another, inspection and management lapses that would be inconceivable at normal plant facilities were occurring at JNFL’s nuclear power facilities. The fact is clear that even emergency power supply equipment and other facilities crucial to safety were not being managed stringently. “To address laxity in taking full control over and managing the plant,” President Kudo noted, JNFL would take action to confirm the integrity of all of its facilities. For example, at the reprocessing plant, it would get a grasp of all of the machinery, said to number about 600,000 units overall, and take action to confirm its safety, restoring the facilities to “a managed condition.”
We cannot hide our surprise that even the number of machines in their possession has not been registered, and that even the inspection work they undertook after that has gone more slowly than planned. How would it be possible for JNFL, who could not accomplish the prescribed management for more than twenty years, to pull it off in just a few months? This is a problem more of the capability of the business itself, going beyond its faulty safety confirmations. Moreover, we must question the capacity of Japan’s nuclear power regulatory authorities. Over this twenty years there has been a succession of three different regulatory organizations, and the present situation at Rokkasho shows that all of them have failed to do their job.
24th Delay in Operations
JNFL acquired its business operator designation (building permit) for the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility in March 1991, and began construction in 1993. Twenty-five years have passed since then. Initially, the date of completion was scheduled for 1999.
JNFL announced on December 22, 2017 that it would again delay the scheduled date of operations at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. The scheduled start of operations has been postponed by three years from the present year, 2018, to 2021. This constitutes the 24th delay, and brings the plan to more than 20 years past the original schedule. This schedule is based on the assumption that all of the tasks such as completing the regulatory standards inspection and passing tests on vitrified waste production, can be handled in about three years. Even the people at the NRA in charge of inspecting the reprocessing plant have called it “an optimistic schedule,” thus their plan has low feasibility and a high likelihood of further delays. In particular, the accidents, troubles and safety code violations at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant indicate that the facilities have already deteriorated notably through aging. Under these conditions, even the regulatory authorities have concerns about proceeding to full-scale operation as things stand.
<Masako Sawai, CNIC>