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Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010


More nuclear power snags

In an attempt to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel, Japan is pushing a nuclear fuel cycle that will take spent nuclear fuel and reprocess it into new fuel for nuclear power plants. But the project is making poor progress. One problem is a hitch in the construction of a plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, that is to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

In 1989 Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. applied for government approval to construct and operate the plant. The completion date of the plant recently was postponed from October 2010 to October 2012. This is the 18th time that the date has been pushed back since 1989.

Mainly relying on technology imported from France, the test run at Rokkasho to extract plutonium and uranium from spent nuclear fuel and purify them went fairly smoothly. But JNFL hit a snag in developing its own technology to contain high-level radioactive waste in glass.

It encountered one problem after another in a furnace that vitrifies such nuclear waste. It is extremely difficult to control the temperature of molten glass in which radioactive substances and other chemical substances are mixed. JNFL must overcome many obstacles before beginning a new test.

The nuclear fuel reprocessing plant is a core component of the nuclear fuel cycle. If the current furnace does not work well, JNFL will have to remodel it. This will delay the completion of the plant for many years.

Some ¥2.2 trillion has already been spent for the construction of the Rokkasho plant. Japan's 10 power companies, which are the main shareholders of JNFL, have decided to add ¥400 billion as capital. If vitrification does not go well, the nuclear fuel cycle will stall.

Because of the snag in vitrification, the Rokkasho plant's storage facility for spent nuclear fuel sent from the nation's nuclear power plants is almost full. At each nuclear power plant, the average storage of spent nuclear fuel is two-thirds full. Nuclear power generation is, at least temporarily, one pillar against global warming. But it is on shaky ground.

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