Photo/Illutration Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.’s Rokkasho nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, in 2018 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japan’s nuclear watchdog approved an outline of safety measures for a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that has a quarter-century history of accidents and skyrocketing costs under what many consider a failed government program.

Even a member of the Nuclear Regulation Authority showed an “understanding for concerns” about whether Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. is fit to run the Rokkasho plant, which is still being built in Aomori Prefecture.

The issues were discussed at an NRA meeting on July 29, when the authority approved the safety outline.

But given the complexities of trying to reprocess nuclear fuel at the plant, more detailed safety inspections are needed and will likely take several years to wrap up.

Japan Nuclear Fuel plans to complete the plant in the village of Rokkasho in the first half of fiscal 2021.

Considered an essential part of the government’s nuclear fuel recycling program, the Rokkasho facility is expected to retrieve uranium and plutonium for reuse from spent nuclear fuel produced by nuclear power stations across the country.

If successful, the recycling process would drastically reduce the amount of nuclear waste.

Success, however, has long been elusive.

Construction of the plant began in 1993 and was supposed to have been finished four years later. But completion was delayed 23 times due to various problems, while construction costs soared to 2.9 trillion yen ($27.62 billion) from the initial estimate of 760 billion yen.

An additional 700 billion yen was injected into the plant for safety precautions required under new regulatory standards compiled after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The NRA tentatively approved the plant’s basic safety outline in May after confirming that Japan Nuclear Fuel had taken measures to prepare for big earthquakes and other natural disasters, as well as a severe accident.

The NRA’s official approval on July 29 came after it received 765 opinions about the Rokkasho facility solicited from the public over 30 days.

The next step for the NRA is examining more details of the plant’s safety features.

The process will probably take years because the reprocessing facility is expected to be involved in delicate procedures, such as dissolving spent fuel and separating uranium and plutonium.

The NRA will need to inspect more than 10,000 pieces of key equipment.

Japan Nuclear Fuel has indicated that it will submit an application in autumn for the detailed inspections after compiling a list of equipment and devices that should be covered.

But a senior NRA official raised doubts about whether Japan Nuclear Fuel would stick to the plan, saying, “No action has been taken so far on their part.”

Many of the public opinions cited the Rokkasho plant’s long history of accidents, glitches and errors, and questioned Japan Nuclear Fuel’s ability to operate a facility that will deal with heavily toxic plutonium and high-level radioactive materials produced in the reprocessing.

The soundness of the government’s longtime policy of recycling nuclear fuel also came under fire.

As of the end of 2018, Japan had already stockpiled of about 46 tons of plutonium for the recycling program.

That volume became a source of international concerns because it could be used to create thousands of nuclear bombs.

The government has promoted the use of the plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel burned at normal reactors to alleviate the concerns. 

But only four reactors in the country currently burn MOX fuel, resulting in consumption of about 2 tons of plutonium a year. 

The Rokkasho plant would have the capability to reprocess up to 7 tons of plutonium annually.

However, the government’s Atomic Energy Commission is set to cut the plutonium stockpile in the coming years, meaning the Rokkasho plant would be unable to enter full-scale operations unless demand for plutonium spiked significantly.

Given these circumstances, some of the public opinions saw the necessity of the facility as a bigger problem than its safety.

“The nuclear fuel recycling policy has already failed and the reprocessing plant is unnecessary,” a number of opinions said.

Before the NRA’s approval on July 29, it also sought the view of the industry minister on whether the Rokkasho facility matched the government’s basic energy plan. 

Toyoshi Fuketa, chairman of the NRA, explained that the Cabinet member was asked because “a facility that causes more damage than benefit should not be tolerated.”

Fuketa’s remark has been interpreted to mean that the NRA sought confirmation that the existence of the plant can still be justified as a policy measure.

The NRA usually asks the industry minister perfunctory questions when it inquires about normal reactors.

The industry minister’s stance was that the Rokkasho facility remains consistent with the basic energy plan and endorsed the NRA’s decision to approve the overall safety plans.

(This article was written by Yu Kotsubo and Norihiko Kuwabara.)