Decommissioning Fukushima 1: The Rods Nobody Wants





The decommissioning process of Fukushima’s Reactor 1 is well underway and at great cost. But no nations are putting their hands up to store the reactors, which is a major concern for Japan as it is not in a safe storage zone. We review the possibilities to store the rods and highlight the ethical dilemma posed with nuclear storage going forward.

By Paul French, Nuclear Energy Insider

The decommissioning process at Fukushima 1 is already underway, where possible. It’s an expensive business – in May Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) posted a massive US$15.3bn loss for the fiscal that ended March 31st, due primarily to the Fukushima 1 crisis. Of Tepco’s losses, 80% is thought to be due to the one-time hit from the decommissioning of the reactors at Fukushima 1 and efforts to contain radiation from the site following the March 11th quake.

A major question for Japan, and indeed the global nuclear industry, is who will take the spent fuel rods from the decommissioned Fukushima 1? At the moment, this is a problem that is severely stalling the decommissioning process.

Clearly, following the problems of March 11th, many of the rods are extremely radioactive and partially melted, while some contain highly lethal plutonium. Over 7-tons of spent rods must be removed from Fukushima 1 to a permanent storage facility prior to the plant being buried under concrete. Removing the rods, and other fissile material, means sending it overseas; Japan’s unstable and earthquake prone nature renders it unsuitable for long-term storage without earthquake proof facilities. TWPCO is building Japan’s first storage facility, a 5,000-ton waste centre in Mutsu, 300 miles north of Fukushima. However, it is not scheduled to open until 2013.

Straightforward solution?

There should have been a straightforward solution to the problem – America. The US has a series of long-term underground storage sites (76 locations in 35 states) for high-level nuclear waste produced by America’s 104 nuclear reactors. Thousands of spent fuel rods (60,000 tons) are now stored at these plants in pools of water, encased in concrete and steel, to cool the spent fuel removed from reactors.

Under the NPT America stipulated that used nuclear fuel from Japanese reactors had to be transferred to the US for storage or reprocessing to prevent Japan developing atomic weapons capabilities. However, America’s storage sites are currently very contentious with legislators and the public and so Washington seems unwilling to take the Fukushima waste; effectively the US has backed down on demands it originally placed on Japan in 1970. So now the question is – where to send the rods?

Regional candidates

Three regional candidates have been suggested, and according to Japanese press reports, been contacted by TEPCO and their decommissioning partner, France’s Areva – Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. TEPCO was thought to favour China believing that facilities were most advanced there, safety procedures better and (in a rather uncomfortable way for a company operating from a democracy) that China could cover up the arrival of the Japanese spent fuel roads from the public.

However, this solution soon became impossible when the Chinese public showed signs of panic and, for the first time, concerns over nuclear policy were expressed. Additionally Japan’s history with China from World War Two and the still smouldering issue of chemical weapons dumps in northeast China mean this solution is now impracticable.

Mongolia is under some pressure to take not just Japan’s spent fuel rods, but others too. Japan’s Manichi Daily newspaper has reported that both Tokyo and Washington are keen to jointly build a spent nuclear fuel storage facility in Mongolia. This has sparked some controversy in Mongolia where anti-nuclear waste activists argue that their country is not a dumping ground for the discarded nuclear detritus of other countries. Consequently, for the moment Ulan Bator, too, seems not to be a possibility.

Other alternatives

Other sparsely populated, but more developed, nations have also been suggested – notably Canada and Australia, both of whom have active uranium mining industries. Both Canada and Australia export uranium to Japan so, some argue, there is a logic to them dealing with their customers’ nuclear waste.

Yoichi Shimatsu, a former editor of the Japan Times Weekly, and now a Hong Kong-based environmental activist, has likened this process to the well-established practise of manufacturers of refrigerators taking them back when they are finished with – industrial recovery. However, perhaps unsurprisingly anti-nuclear activists in Canada and Australia are not so keen on the idea while the major uranium suppliers in those countries, such as Rio Tinto and CAMECO have shown little interest in taking on this extra cost.

As Yoichi Shimatsu points out, though both Australia and Canada have active and highly profitable uranium economies, the expected besieging of the Canberra and Ottawa parliaments by NIMBY protestors is ensuring that neither country is volunteering to take Japan’s spent fuel rods anytime soon.

Rods without a home

And so Fukushima 1’s spent fuel rods remain without a burial site – the unwanted and unloved by-products of the nuclear industry and natural disaster. Many analysts seem to believe that ultimately a country with space and a need for income, perhaps Mongolia at some point, will accept the waste. However, relying on more desperate developing economies to accept the toxic waste rejected by developed countries does not bode well for the future of responsible and ethical decommissioning.


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