Repair work on leaks and faulty welding at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (RRP) currently under construction was completed in February this year (see map). Leaks in the spent fuel storage pool were found in six places and faulty welds where leaks could possibly occur were found in another 285 places. There have been many problems at the plant and now the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) has begun discussions about what to do about the nuclear fuel cycle. At the center of this issue is the policy about the Rokkasho plant. The discussions will bring into focus the future direction of Japan’s nuclear energy policy.
Problems with the criticality control software
Chemical trials in the main buildings were completed at the end of December 2003. The results of these trials were announced in January 2004. Altogether 307 problems were identified. Of particular importance were defects in the computer software that controls the many valves used to prevent criticality accidents. When solutions containing uranium and plutonium are transported between buildings at RRP, the concentration of the solutions is calculated in the Analysis Laboratory Building. The results of these calculations are then confirmed in the Central Control Building, before the valves are opened to allow the liquid to be transferred from one building to another. However in September 2003 problems arose in the criticality control software, such that data could not be passed between the Analysis Laboratory Building, the Central Control Building and the other buildings. The main reason is believed to be that the units for measuring the concentrations of the solutions were different for each software package. Such a basic design error exposed once again the sloppiness of Japan Nuclear Fuels Ltd’s (JNFL) quality control.
A further problem is the fact that because JNFL is in a hurry to make the plant operational it intends to carry out uranium trials before the problems with the software are rectified. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has agreed to this. Both of these organizations state that because depleted uranium will be used during the uranium tests, there is no possibility that a criticality accident will occur. They argue that the software can be fixed while the tests are being carried out. The next step is to run a solution of plutonium through the plant. We are protesting against these two organizations’ plan to ignore safety considerations and forge ahead with the tests.
Commencement of operations should be postponed
Now that the chemical trials have been completed, in order to proceed to the next step (the uranium trials) it is necessary to get NISA’s approval of the results of the chemical trials, then get approval for ‘Regulations Regarding the Conduct and Safety of Uranium Tests’. Further, JNFL must conclude a ‘Local Safety and Environmental Protection Agreement’ with the regional and local governments: Aomori Prefecture, Rokkasho Village and the thirteen surrounding towns and villages. At this stage, (late July) NISA has given its approval, but JNFL has run into problems with the local governments. Due to the fact that the uranium tests have been delayed, JNFL has been under pressure to postpone the testing schedule and the commencement of operations. At the end of June JNFL postponed the date for the commencement of uranium tests to July and postponed the date for the ‘active tests’ one month from June 2005 to July. It is trying to fool people with these short postponements.
In fact, there is no chance that the uranium tests will commence this month (July). Even if all arrangements went according to plan from now on, the earliest the tests could start is the end of September. What this really means is that the scheduled date for the commencement of operations at the facility (July 2006) will be postponed. Everyone knows this, but JNFL is avoiding making the announcement. Furthermore, in June AEC began its five yearly review of the Long-Term Nuclear Program. The RRP plan is the biggest issue in these discussions. The total cost of RRP is estimated at 11 billion yen. Add to this the ‘backend costs’ and you come up with a total cost of 19 billion yen (see NIT 98). It is clear that the costs of the nuclear fuel cycle will become a huge burden for the general public and the need to reconsider the nuclear fuel cycle policy has emerged as a political issue.
JNFL’s custody of nuclear materials
The government and JNFL have taken the position that the principal manufacturing processes at RRP are classified information, because these processes relate to the custody of nuclear materials. In the context of the legal proceedings relating to the license approval, they have consistently claimed that they can’t permit an inspection of the facility. Furthermore, the technology involved in the principal manufacturing processes was imported from COGEMA. They argue that under the Japan France Nuclear Agreement this information cannot be published.
However, it was revealed in June that with the uranium tests approaching JNFL invited the national media into the Uranium-Plutonium Co-denitration Building and allowed them to take photos of the equipment – this after having said that they were unable to allow public access to this area. The citizens who are complainants in the above court case demanded that the government withdraw the explanation that it has given so far. At the same time they demanded that the Aomori District Court conduct an inspection of the building. Immediately the court accepted the citizens’ demand and the equipment will be inspected on July 30th. This incident starkly illustrates the fact that the government applies this ‘confidentiality of the custody of nuclear materials’ in a totally arbitrary fashion. The claims made by the government and JNFL on this matter are in total conflict. JNFL says that the areas which are open to the public “were decided in consultation with the government.” For its part, the government says that JNFL broke the law (Regulation of Nuclear Reactors and Related Matters Act). However, the government is worried that the problem could get out of hand, so on June 24th it delivered a ‘severe reprimand’ to JNFL, thus shifting all the blame onto JNFL. Such is the quality of JNFL’s and the Japanese Government’s notion of custody of nuclear materials. This sad reality was brought into sharp relief as a result of the inspection issue.
by Masako Sawai (CNIC)