On September 10 Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd (JNFL) announced that the commencement of commercial operations of its Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant would be delayed by two years from October this year to October 2012. This is the eighteenth time the start date has been delayed. The reason for the delay is a series of problems and accidents during testing of the process of vitrifying high-level radioactive liquid waste. All the other tests have been completed, but unless the two vitrification furnaces can achieve a production capacity of 1,000 glass canisters per year, the plant cannot begin commercial operations.
JNFL says that the first 18 months of the extension period will be spent on activities including fitting thermometers to the vitrification furnaces and comparing operational data from a mock up facility (KMOC) in Tokai Village which is conducting experiments vitrifying an imitation of the radioactive liquid waste produced at the Rokkasho plant.
So far all the vitrification tests at Rokkasho have used Vitrification Furnace A, but glass and other material have become stuck in the furnace. JNFL now wants to begin testing Vitrification Furnace B and conduct "hot tests" (using real high-level liquid waste) in both furnaces from April 2012.
However, it is completely unclear when it will be possible to resume testing of the Vitrification Facility. No matter how well comparison of the KMOC data goes, since KMOC is not using the strong heat and radiation generating highly radioactive liquid waste produced at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, the problems involved are not the same. JNFL's attempts to gather new data from KMOC since testing of the Rokkasho plant came to a standstill are bound to fail. They only go to show that the development of the vitrification furnaces was a total failure in the first place. JNFL needs to reconsider the fundamental design and development of the vitrification furnaces.
Testing of the vitrification furnaces has been a vicious circle in which one problem has led to another. Due to its lack of technical ability, JNFL has only been able to respond to problems in a haphazard fashion. To deal with the sedimentation of platinum group elements at the bottom of the vitrification furnace it inserted a stirring rod, but the stirring rod bent and in the ensuing confusion a brick was dislodged from the ceiling of the furnace (NIT 128). As attempts were being made to overcome the problem, about 150 liters of highly radioactive liquid waste leaked and evaporated within the cell (NIT 129). No doubt there will be more problems in future and JNFL will end up chasing its tail as it tries to respond to them, while the real tests are pushed further and further into the future.
It is hard to read any technical logic into the two-year period of the delay. Rather, it seems to have more to do with the fact that the spent fuel pools at Japan's nuclear power plants can just manage to get by without sending spent fuel to Rokkasho for a period of two years. Rokkasho's spent fuel storage pools are almost full. As at September, 2,776 tons of spent fuel was already stored in the pools, which have a total capacity of 3,000 tons. (See page 5.)
The two-year delay will have a severe impact on the finances of Rokkasho Village. Rokkasho Village expects to receive about 2 billion yen in fixed assets taxes in the first year the plant begins commercial operations. The figure will gradually decrease thereafter. It is four and a half years since active testing of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant began on March 31, 2006 and almost three years have passed since testing of the Vitrification Facility began on November 5, 2007. Now completion of the tests has been pushed back another two years. This small village made all sorts of plans on the assumption that it would receive huge taxation income from the reprocessing plant, but now it is forced to reconsider its finances.
At the same time as announcing the delay, JNFL announced that it was making third-party allocations of new stocks worth a total of 400 billion yen. The thirteen recipients are the nine electric power companies that operate nuclear power plants, plus Japan Atomic Power Company, Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. A September 14 article published on the English web site of The Denki Shimbun (The Electric Daily News) made the following comment:
"As of March 31 this year, JNFL's equity ratio was about 7.5%. Its financial position was weak for an enterprise executing the nuclear fuel cycle as a matter of national policy, and was viewed with concern by the electric power companies and other shareholders. Once the new third-party allocations are made, JNFL's equity ratio will top 20%...."
The stock issue shows that JNFL is experiencing financial difficulties, but a question that remains unanswered is the impact that this and previous delays will have on the total cost of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. After so many delays, it is inconceivable that construction costs will not exceed the official figure of 2.14 trillion yen (see NIT 98).
Masako Sawai (CNIC)