Photo/IllutrationJapan Atomic Energy Agency’s spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The nation's nuclear watchdog body approved plans to decommission the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, a project expected to take 70 years, perhaps longer, and cost around 1 trillion yen ($9 billion), probably much more.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority gave its blessing June 13 to the plan worked out by the government-affiliated Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which applied for decommissioning in June 2017.

The first 10 years of the project will involve securing worker safety by decontaminating equipment and strengthening the quake-resistance capabilities of buildings.

It will also vitrify about 360 cubic meters of high-level radioactive liquid waste that accumulated in the facility.

The next 60 years will be spent dismantling equipment and decontaminating the site.

The JAEA estimates that decommissioning will carry a price tag of 987 billion yen. The figure does not include maintenance costs during the 60-year period on grounds they are impossible to estimate. This raises the prospect that the overall bill might be a lot higher.

The decommissioning could also take longer than 70 years. The vitrification work got under way before the NRA green-lighted the project, but has encountered numerous problems due to equipment malfunctions.

The JAEA estimates that more than 7 tons of low-level radioactive waste will be generated in the dismantlement of equipment. Where to dispose of it, as well as the vitrified waste liquid, remains undecided.

The JAEA is also overseeing the decommissioning of a prototype fast-breeder reactor Monju in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, that is expected to take about 30 years.

“It will become extremely hard work. We will have to solve problems one by one,” said Toyoshi Fuketa, chairman of the NRA.

As a non-nuclear power, Japan was allowed to operate the Tokai reprocessing facility as an exceptional case under a Japan-U.S. agreement on nuclear power.

The facility started full-fledged operations in 1981 with an aim of developing reprocessing technologies. So far, it has reprocessed 1,140 tons of spent nuclear fuel.

The JAEA decided to decommission the facility in 2014 as it would be near-impossible to meet stricter safety standards introduced after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.