Eight years on, water woes threaten Fukushima cleanup — Reuters

” OKUMA, Japan (Reuters) – Eight years after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, a fresh obstacle threatens to undermine the massive clean-up: 1 million tons of contaminated water must be stored, possibly for years, at the power plant.

Last year, Tokyo Electric Power Co said a system meant to purify contaminated water had failed to remove dangerous radioactive contaminants.

That means most of that water – stored in 1,000 tanks around the plant – will need to be reprocessed before it is released into the ocean, the most likely scenario for disposal.

Reprocessing could take nearly two years and divert personnel and energy from dismantling the tsunami-wrecked reactors, a project that will take up to 40 years.

It is unclear how much that would delay decommissioning. But any delay could be pricey; the government estimated in 2016 that the total cost of plant dismantling, decontamination of affected areas, and compensation, would amount to 21.5 trillion yen ($192.5 billion), roughly 20 percent of the country’s annual budget.

Tepco is already running out of space to store treated water. And should another big quake strike, experts say tanks could crack, unleashing tainted liquid and washing highly radioactive debris into the ocean.

Fishermen struggling to win back the confidence of consumers are vehemently opposed to releasing reprocessed water – deemed largely harmless by Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) – into the ocean.

“That would destroy what we’ve been building over the past eight years,” said Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations. Last year’s catch was just 15 percent of pre-crisis levels, partly because of consumer reluctance to eat fish caught off Fukushima.

SLOW PROGRESS

On a visit to the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi plant last month, huge cranes hovered over the four reactor buildings that hug the coast. Workers could be seen atop the No. 3 building getting equipment ready to lift spent fuel rods out of a storage pool, a process that could start next month.

In most areas around the plant, workers no longer need to wear face masks and full body suits to protect against radiation. Only the reactor buildings or other restricted areas require special equipment.

Fanning out across the plant’s property are enough tanks to fill 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Machines called Advanced Liquid Processing Systems, or ALPS, had treated the water inside them.

Tepco said the equipment could remove all radionuclides except tritium, a relatively harmless hydrogen isotope that is hard to separate from water. Tritium-laced water is released into the environment at nuclear sites around the world.

But after newspaper reports last year questioned the effectiveness of ALPS-processed water, Tepco acknowledged that strontium-90 and other radioactive elements remained in many of the tanks.

Tepco said the problems occurred because absorbent materials in the equipment had not been changed frequently enough.

The utility has promised to re-purify the water if the government decides that releasing it into the ocean is the best solution. It is the cheapest of five options a government task force considered in 2016; others included evaporation and burial.

Tepco and the government are now waiting for another panel of experts to issue recommendations. The head of the panel declined an interview request. No deadline has been set.

NRA chief Toyoshi Fuketa believes ocean release after dilution is the only feasible way to handle the water problem. He has warned that postponing the decision indefinitely could derail the decommissioning project.

STORING INDEFINITELY

Another option is to store the water for decades in enormous tanks normally used for crude oil. The tanks have been tested for durability, said Yasuro Kawai, a plant engineer and a member of Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy, a group advocating abandoning nuclear energy.

Each tank holds 100,000 tons, so 10 such tanks could store the roughly 1 million tons of water processed by ALPS so far, he said.

The commission proposes holding the tritium-laced water, which has a half life of 12.3 years, in tanks for 123 years. After that, it will be one thousandth as radioactive as it was when it went into storage.

Although experts caution that tanks would be vulnerable to major quakes, Japan’s trade and industry minister, Hiroshige Seko, said the committee would consider them anyway.

“Long-term storage … has an upside as radiation levels come down while it is in storage. But there is a risk of leakage,” Seko told Reuters. “It is difficult to hold the water indefinitely, so the panel will also look into how it should be disposed of eventually.”

Space is also a problem, said Akira Ono, Tepco’s chief decommissioning officer. By 2020, the utility will expand tank storage capacity by 10 percent to 1.37 million tons, and about 95 percent of total capacity will probably be used by the end of that year, he said.

“Tanks are now being built on flat, elevated spots in stable locations,” Ono said. But such ideal space is getting scarce, he added.

Many local residents hope Tepco will just keep storing the water. If it does get released into the ocean, “everyone would sink into depression,” said fishing trawler captain Koichi Matsumoto.

Fukushima was once popular with surfers. But young people in the area do not go surfing any more because they’ve been repeatedly warned about suspected radioactivity in the water, said surf shop owner Yuichiro Kobayashi.

Releasing treated water from the plant “could end up chasing the next generation of children away from the sea as well,” he said.

Ono says dealing with contaminated water is one of many complex issues involved in decommissioning.

A year ago, when he took over leading the effort, it felt like the project had just “entered the trailhead,” he said. “Now, it feels like we’re really starting to climb.” ”

Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Malcolm Foster and Gerry Doyle, Reuters

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Japan’s plutonium glut casts a shadow on renewed nuclear deal — Nikkei Asian Review

” TOKYO — The decision Jan. 16 to automatically extend a nuclear agreement with the U.S. came as a relief to a Japanese government worried about the prospect of renegotiating the basis for a cornerstone of its energy policy. But friction remains over a massive store of plutonium that highlights the problems with the nation’s ambitious nuclear energy plans.

The nuclear fuel cycle pursued by Japan’s government and power companies centers on recovering uranium and plutonium from spent fuel for reuse in reactors. This is made possible by the unique agreement with the U.S. that lets Japan make plutonium. The radioactive element can be used in nuclear weapons, so its production is generally tightly restricted.

“The agreement forms part of the foundation of Japan’s nuclear power activities,” said Hiroshige Seko, minister of economy, trade and industry, in comments to reporters Friday. “It’s important from the standpoint of the Japan-U.S. relationship.”

America began sharing its advanced atomic energy technology with other nations in the 1950s, aiming to promote its peaceful use. Washington remains hugely influential in setting ground rules for military applications of nuclear material, including with regard to reprocessing. Countries including South Korea have sought special arrangements like Japan’s.

The lack of fuss over the renewal of the agreement, which had been due to expire this coming July, has masked concerns expressed behind the scenes. A Japanese official visiting Washington in December was asked by a U.S. nuclear policymaker about Japan’s oversight of its plutonium stockpile.

Japan has amassed roughly 47 tons of plutonium stored inside and outside the country — enough for some 6,000 nuclear warheads. With the nation’s nuclear power plants gradually taken offline after the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and progress on restarting them sluggish, Japan has been left with no real way to whittle down a pile drawing international scrutiny.

Washington ultimately did not ask to change the nuclear agreement, which after the expiration date can be terminated by either side with six months’ notice. Given the tense regional security situation, including North Korea’s missile advances, “Japan and the U.S. apparently didn’t want the world to see friction between them over nuclear power,” said a Japanese government insider in contact with Washington.

Tokyo’s relief at the lack of American demands is dampened by the awareness that the deal could be scrapped at any time. “It’s more unstable than before,” an industry ministry official acknowledged.

The best-case scenario for Japan would have been securing an agreement that set a new expiration date. But any such change would have had to go through the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers supporting nuclear nonproliferation might not have welcomed giving Japan — which already has no prospect of using up its existing supply — carte blanche to keep reprocessing. This risk is likely why Washington opted for automatic extension of the existing agreement.

The precursor to the current deal, signed in 1955, let Japan use American technology to kick-start its own atomic energy industry. A new agreement in 1968 permitted reprocessing of spent fuel with U.S. consent. A 1988 revision gave blanket permission for reprocessing for peaceful applications.

But the nuclear fuel cycle policy this enabled has stalled amid chronic problems at key facilities. The Japanese government decided in 2016 to scrap the Monju plutonium-fueled experimental fast breeder reactor. And a reprocessing facility in northern Japan that would be critical to producing plutonium fuel usable by conventional reactors has faced repeated delays that have pushed back the completion date from 1997 to 2021.

Reducing Japan’s plutonium stockpile will be vital to assuaging international concerns. Seko asserted that plutonium consumption will pick up again as the Nuclear Regulation Authority clears more reactors to restart.

But this may not work as well as Tokyo hopes. Just five reactors have met the stricter safety standards imposed in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, and not all of these use plutonium.

The nuclear watchdog said Jan. 16 that it will devise new guidelines to better adhere to the government’s principle of not possessing plutonium without a specific purpose. Critics of Japan’s plutonium production will likely not be satisfied without a convincing, reality-based plan to deal with the issue. ”

by Kazunari Hanawa and Takashi Tsuji, Nikkei writing staff

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Britain and Japan sign nuclear energy cooperation agreement — The Telegraph

” Britain and Japan have signed an agreement that significantly expands cooperation in the nuclear energy sector and paves the way for Japanese companies to construct nuclear plants in the UK.

It also covers cooperation in the areas of decommissioning and decontamination and it is anticipated that the deal will give British companies with advanced technologies greater access to projects at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where three of the six reactors suffered melt-downs after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

The memorandum of understanding was signed in Tokyo on Thursday by Hiroshige Seko, the Japanese trade and industry minister, and Greg Clark, the business and energy secretary.

The agreement is the first of its kind for Japan, while Mr Clark described it as “vital” to the UK’s industrial strategy and the development of clean energy sources.

One of the key components of the agreement is the proposals by Hitachi and Toshiba to build new reactors in Britain.

Horizon Nuclear Power, bought by Hitachi from a German company in 2012, has delivered the outline of a project at Wylfa Newydd in Wales, and has plans to build as many as six reactors in the UK. Toshiba joint venture NuGeneration is planning a nuclear plant in Cumbria and is considering additional projects.

Speaking in Tokyo last week, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, said: “The technology is proven and well-known. Hitachi and Toshiba have the technology. The challenge really is financing, not a technical or commercial challenge.”

The two governments are to review investment and lending for Horizon through the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and the Development Bank of Japan. Financing of the project from the Japanese side is expected to reach Y1 trillion (£7 billion).

Japan is particularly keen for the projects to go ahead after its previous attempt to export nuclear energy technology, to Vietnam, fell through.

Japan and Britain will also collaborate on nuclear research and development, as well as security.

The deal on nuclear energy with Japan has progressed smoothly, in contrast to the problems the £18 billion Hinkley Point C project encountered earlier in the year.

That scheme is a joint venture between EDF, which is 85 per cent owned by the French state, and China General Nuclear Power Corp. It was put on hold in July, over concerns about China’s involvement, before subsequently being given the go-ahead.

by Julian Ryall

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Japan decides to scrap trouble-plagued Monju prototype reactor — Nikkei Asian Review

” TOKYO (Kyodo) — The Japanese government formally decided Wednesday to decommission the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in western Japan’s Fukui Prefecture, which has barely operated over the past two decades despite its envisioned key role in the country’s nuclear fuel recycling policy.

The decision in a ministerial meeting Wednesday, concluding a process that has included discussion of Japan’s overall fast-reactor development policy by a government panel, comes despite failure to obtain local support for the plan.

The government has invested more than 1 trillion yen ($8.5 billion) in research and development for the reactor, having originally hoped it would serve as a linchpin of nuclear fuel recycling efforts as it was designed to produce more plutonium than it consumes while generating electricity.

With resource-poor Japan relying on uranium imports to power its conventional reactors, the government will continue to develop fast reactors in pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle in which Japan seeks to reprocess spent fuel and reuse plutonium and uranium, extracted through reprocessing.

But Monju’s fate is sure to prompt further public scrutiny of the fuel cycle policy, with many nuclear reactors left idled after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. The public also remains wary of nuclear power generation after the disaster.

With the facility’s decommissioning, and the accompanying loss of jobs and subsidies, the central government also risks damaging its rapport with Fukui, which hosts a number of other currently shuttered nuclear plants along the Sea of Japan coast.

The government has calculated it will cost at least 375 billion yen over 30 years to fully decommission Monju. It plans to remove the spent nuclear fuel from the reactor by 2022 and finish dismantling the facility in 2047.

Monju achieved sustained nuclear reactions, technically called criticality, in 1994. But it experienced a series of problems including a leakage of sodium coolant the following year and has been largely mothballed for the subsequent two decades.

Restarting operations at the plant would have cost at least 540 billion yen, according to government forecasts.

“We will decommission Monju given that it would take a considerable amount of time and expense to resume its operations,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told Wednesday’s meeting.

“The nuclear fuel cycle is at the core of our energy policy,” Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters after the meeting. His ministry will take over from the science ministry in overseeing the development of more practical fast reactors.

“We will make full use of the highly valuable knowledge and expertise acquired at Monju as we move forward with fast reactor development…first by concentrating on creating a strategic roadmap,” Seko said.

Earlier Wednesday, the central government held a consultation meeting with Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, who told reporters afterward that he remains opposed to the scrapping of the facility.

Nishikawa said in the meeting that decommissioning cannot begin without the approval of both the prefecture and the city of Tsuruga, where Monju is based.

“The governor told us today…that he wants a more thorough explanation of the specific mechanisms by which decommissioning will be carried out,” Seko said after the decision was made.

“We will create opportunities for dialogue with the local area.”

Nishikawa had said at a similar meeting Monday that the central government had not given enough justification for decommissioning Monju or considered the plant’s operation history sufficiently.

He has also argued that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which operates Monju, is incapable of safely dismantling the reactor.

A nuclear regulatory body recommended last year that the JAEA be disqualified from operating the facility following revelations of mismanagement, including a massive number of equipment inspection failures in 2012.

Science minister Hirokazu Matsuno instructed JAEA President Toshio Kodama on Wednesday to come up with a decommissioning plan by around April next year. The government has said it plans to take third-party technical opinions into account in working out how the decommissioning will take place. ”

by Nikkei Asian Review

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Japan nearly doubles Fukushima disaster-related cost to $188 billion — Reuters

” Japan’s government on Friday nearly doubled its projections for costs related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster to 21.5 trillion yen ($188 billion), increasing pressure on Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) (9501.T) to step up reform and improve its performance.

The new estimates could mean a heavier burden for Tepco and other utilities that are helping to pay the costs, and could result in higher power bills for consumers in the long run.

In 2013, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) had calculated the costs of the Fukushima meltdowns at 11 trillion yen. METI boosted its estimate as industry experts now see decommissioning of the wrecked Fukushima reactors at 8 trillion yen, quadruple an earlier estimate of 2 trillion yen.

The new projection, part of a recommendation from a government panel considering the future of Tepco and Fukushima Daiichi, also calls for 7.9 trillion yen in reparations, up from 5.4 trillion yen, and 5.6 trillion yen for the treatment and storage of contaminated soil, up from 3.6 trillion yen.

“For now, we don’t expect the costs to increase further, but new developments and unforeseen factors mean there is a chance they could go higher,” METI Minister Hiroshige Seko told a press conference.

“Decommissioning technological innovation and a speedier clean up could help reduce costs and it is important that we put effort into that,” he said.

Tepco’s portion of the burden has more than doubled to 15.9 trillion yen from 7.2 trillion yen, while other major utilities will need to pay 3.7 trillion. New electric companies will have to shoulder 240 billion yen.

A METI official said the new projections of the decommissioning costs are an estimate based on certain assumptions and the costs of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and does not represent a loss Tepco needs to book. ”

by Yuka Obayashi and Kentaro Hamada

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Japan’s nuclear export ambitions hit wall as Vietnam set to rip up reactor order — Japan Today

” TOKYO/HANOI — Vietnam is poised to abandon plans for Japanese firms to build a multi-billion dollar nuclear power plant, damaging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to begin exporting reactors after the Fukushima disaster left the industry in deep-freeze at home. … ”

by Aaron Sheldrick and Ho Binh Minh

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