Rokkasho’s Potential To Contaminate Could Rival Fukushima Daiichi

“During my studies with the topic of fuel reprocessing has drawn interest within our group as well as the citizens of Japan. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accidents has brought many groups together in Japan who are opposed to continued nuclear operations as well as plans to start fuel reprocessing. The Rokkasho fuel reprocessing plant has been involved in a long list of delays, funding issues, faulty welding, gross leakage within the systems and an undefined future. The entire nuclear policy within Japan is in a transitional period and a decision to go forward with fuel reprocessing is lagging behind the lack of a solid energy policy. After studying the Rokkasho plant for a short time many major issues are readily available for review. These issues are of the magnitude that the facility should not be allowed to continue its testing program or allowed to operate.  The fuel reprocessing plant has a discharge path directly to the ocean, similar to plants in France and the UK. The plant has a flawed basis for operation and lacks the defense in depth safety measures which include  the direct impact of an aircraft (the US Air Force base is 17 miles from the facility and no safety basis has been covered for that accident).” – Dean Wilkie 

What is Rokkasho

The sprawling complex in Aomori prefecture currently includes  38 buildings on 3,800,000 square meters of land. The plant includes a number of facilities all focused on Japan’s nuclear power industry. The facility is owned by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited, a private-public company that handles nuclear fuel aspects for the country’s nuclear power plants. Costs for the facility have increased 2.8 times the original estimate, now well over 2 trillion yen. The facility is near a number of towns and Misawa air base and it sits on the Pacific Ocean. A number of experts including Japan’s nuclear regulator have raised concerns that the facility sits over large active seismic faults.

Rokkasho includes these facilities:

Reprocessing plant: The reprocessing plant at Rokkasho takes spent nuclear fuel, disassembles it then separates out the uranium and plutonium by chemical processes. The reprocessing plant includes a series of 3 spent fuel pools to store fuel for eventual reprocessing, these pools are 11 meters x 27 meters x 13 meters deep. The pools began receiving spent fuel in 1998 and currently hold 2108 tons of spent fuel in the three pools with a total capacity of 3000 tons. Japan currently has about 11,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel at various sites around the country. The reprocessing plant creates liquid radioactive wastes, highly radioactive solid wastes from the fuel assemblies, radioactive gas releases to the air, uranium and plutonium. The reprocessing plant has an expected output of 800 tons of uranium or 8 tons of plutonium annually at full operation. The reprocessing plant is currently in a test run state.


High level nuclear waste monitoring facility: This facility currently houses high level waste from overseas reprocessing of nuclear fuel done in France or the UK. It will house fuel from Rokkasho’s reprocessing plant when it begins full production.


MOX fuel fabrication plant: The MOX (mixed oxide fuel) plant if ever completed would produce 130 tons of MOX fuel per year that includes a small percentage of plutonium in the fuel. As of 2009 the plant was estimated to cost 190 billion yen. Japan currently has 43.8 tons of extracted plutonium.  The use of MOX fuel was supposed to begin in 1997 with fuel produced in France or the UK. As of 2010 only a few reactors in Japan had run small amounts of MOX fuel including unit 3 at Fukushima Daiichi. SInce the Fukushima disaster, the MOX program has been up in the air. The MOX plant currently sits as a large hole in the ground. The government has made statements that they still plan to build the plant.


Uranium enrichment plant: The current uranium enrichment plant has a capacity of 1.05 million SWU/year (separative work units). Officials hope to increase that to 1.5 million SWU/year with new centrifuges. The plant currently meets about 1/3 of Japan’s enriched uranium needs for fuel. The enrichment plant has been plagued by problems and failing equipment. As of 2008 it had stopped operating and there was a plan to install new centrifuges around 2011.

Low level radioactive waste landfill: This is the dump for all of the low level nuclear waste from all of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Anything generated at the plants, from plastics to tyvek suits ends up here buried in drums.

International Fusion Research Center: The fusion research center includes a number of experimental facilities. There is an R&D center, a computational facility and an accelerator for nuclear fusion research.



Japan’s Planned Fuel Cycle

Japan’s fuel cycle plan began taking shape soon after the country’s nuclear program took off. By the 1960’s Japan had adopted the idea of creating a fast breeder reactor. These are frequently touted as a way to deal with plutonium, a fission product created in nuclear fuel. Ironically, the fast breeder reactor actually creates more plutonium. Japan has been trying to make fast breeder reactor technology work at their Monju fast breeder reactor for decades with no real success. Monju was built in the 1980s and has had a series of failures, accidents and cost over runs. About 1 trillion yen has been spent on Monju. It may now end up shut down over costs and a seismic fault under the plant.

Japan began looking at MOX fuel as a way to deal with their fuel cycle issues. The MOX or “pluthermal” program was originally planned to begin by 1997. By 2010 only a few reactors were using small amounts of MOX. The Oma nuclear reactor being built near Rokkasho could use larger concentrations of MOX fuel if the reactor is ever completed. That reactor may also be over active faults putting its future in doubt. The fuel cycle as it currently stands still creates large amounts of waste. There is stil the eventual need for a permanent disposal site for all of the production waste and all of the spent fuel including the disassembled fuel assemblies discarded in the reprocessing procedure. Japan currently has no prospects for a permanent disposal site or geologic repository. The reprocessing program is expected to considerably add to the cost of electricity yet contributes little to recoup those costs even if the fuel cycle plans were to work as hoped. Rokkasho will add 6-7 trillion yen over the plant’s life cycle to the cost of electricity.


Problems With Reprocessing

Reprocessing is essentially the same process used to extract bomb materials used by various countries for their atomic weapons programs. The process uses dangerous toxic chemicals to separate out the uranium and plutonium from the fuel pellets. This liquid processing method creates considerable amounts of liquid high level nuclear waste. The reprocessing procedure includes considerable releases to the environment including releases directly to the sea and air of radioactive isotopes. Reprocessing is also quite dangerous, the predecessor facility at Tokaimura had a fire, explosion and criticality accident at their fuel facility. The criticality accident killed three workers and caused 300,000 residents to be exposed and seek shelter. Releases are a major concern. Rokkasho has a waste pipe that goes directly out into the Pacific Ocean and dumps contaminated fluids into the sea. Rokkasho also releases radioactive gasses and air out the vent stack of the plant. Even in the test phase, considerable amounts of contamination are being released. Reprocessing does little to solve the nuclear waste problem. Each reprocessing effort releases large amounts of radioactive contamination into the environment and creates varied types of contaminated wastes to deal with, plus the newly created fuel just perpetuates the problem. Nothing ever goes away.




Current State Of The Project

Rokkasho has yet to successfully do or produce anything after all the money spent and contamination to the environment. The reprocessing plant is still struggling in a testing phase as they deal with issues like the inability to solidify some waste. Other facilities are either behind schedule or ran into technical problems. Now Japan’s entire nuclear program is in doubt yet the government has made promises to keep all of the facilities at Rokkasho moving forward and the nuclear fuel cycle plan in place. They have provided no explanation what they intend to do with all of this proposed fuel and extracted plutonium if they never restart Japan’s nuclear plants.. The US has also put considerable pressure on Japan to keep both Rokkasho and Monju open. The US took the odd stance to demand Japan keep Rokkasho open under the claim of proliferation worries even though Rokkasho holds the reprocessing facility that creates extracted plutonium. Local officials have expressed concern, if the plant were to be shut down it would hurt jobs in the region already strapped for jobs. The plant would require extensive decommissioning and will cost 1.5 trillion yen to decontaminate the plant, creating quite a few jobs.


Spent Fuel Pool Problems

The spent fuel pools at Rokkasho have had an extensive series of problems. 307 defects were found in 2003 that includes holes, faulty welds and other failures in the spent fuel pools and tanks at the reprocessing plant. Leaks from the spent fuel pools due to faulty welding were found as early as 2001. 291 faulty welds were found and six holes that went completely through the metal liner of the spent fuel pool. There were also failures found in the canals used for moving spent fuel from the pools, and metal fittings that were embedded into concrete to protect against earthquakes had been severed. These were metal plates embedded in the concrete to support the fuel racks, so these were critical components.




Reprocessing Plant

The reprocessing plant itself has had a number of failures found. Chemical holding tanks were found to have holes through the welds including 57 examples of bad welds and one complete hole. Over 1000 defects were found at the plant during early tests using water and steam to detect failures and leaks. Failures where found in 9 of the 10 buildings, the vitrification building was not inspected at that time. In the fuel dissolver tanks, where the actual extraction is done, thermometers were found to be in the wrong locations. These are a critical piece of equipment for that process stage. While some of these found problems have been addressed, a number of them still had not been resolved. One is the software programming that controls an important locking valve used to prevent a criticality accident. The pipes used to extract the acid solutions used in the fuel separation process were still not repaired.


JNFL and NISA has decided leaks up to 10 liters an hour could be monitored rather than repairing them. The start of the reprocessing plant has now been put off until October 2013, this has added 110 billion yen to the ever growing costs. There were also two plutonium exposure accidents, both where lab workers were not wearing any sort of mask.


Emissions At Rokkasho

Even though the plant has not gone into full production, it is already polluting the area. The operators of the plant fully admit this.

“Japan Nuclear Fuel acknowledges that to guarantee the plutonium cycle, the plant will need to pump out as much radioactive material in one day as an ordinary plant generates in one year. But instead of trapping the waste, the plant will release most of it from a 150-metre tall chimney directly into the yamase ocean winds that travel inland over the farming communities of Aomori Prefecture. The rest will be conveyed through a pipe 3 kilometres out into the ocean, into the path of currents bound for shore.”  – Sidney Morning Herald 2008

By JNFL’s own admissions in fiscal 2012 they released 660,000 bq of iodine 131, 4,200,000 bq of iodine 129  and 780,000,000,000 bq of tritium, combined air & water releases. These numbers are actually below the target levels. JNFL considers these levels to be acceptable and are releases while the plant is not in full operation.


Projected Emissions

These are JNFL’s projected emissions for Rokkasho:

Releases to the air

Releases to the Pacific

Under JNFL’s conservative predictions there are admitting to worrying levels of contamination that are expected to show up in the food chain. CNIC cited JNFL numbers in one of their reports on Rokkasho and gave these numbers from JNFL:
JNFL has published estimates of the impact that the radioactivity released from the Rokkasho reprocessing plant will have on the surrounding environment in the future. For example:

  • 1 kilogram of rice produced in the surrounding area will contain 90 becquerels of carbon-14, 100 becquerels of tritium, 0.05 becquerels of ruthenium-106 and 0.0003 becquerels of plutonium;
  • seaweeds such as kelp and wakame will contain 0.02 becquerels of plutonium and 0.08 becquerels of ruthenium-106;
  • fish will contain 0.005 becquerels of plutonium and 300 becquerels of tritium;
  • shell fish will contain 0.01 becquerels of plutonium; and so on.


CNIC also pointed out how JNFL has been under calculating exposure potentials. Rokkasho is being built using French technology according to CNIC, yet it is claimed by JNFL that ruthenium releases will be 400 times lower than the current releases at the French plant at La Hague. JNFL has not attempted to explain how this would be possible using the same technology. CNIC also pointed out findings in Ireland where sea releases of plutonium found their way into house dust, creating an inhalation pathway. Inhaled plutonium is an extremely dangerous health problem as the plutonium remains lodged in the lung rather than being expelled through the body.

The release estimates for Rokkasho also assume what is released will evenly dilute and will not accumulate anywhere. This has been found to be a very inaccurate assumption after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Contamination has been found to concentrate in a variety of ways. The seafood contamination around the Selafield reprocessing facility in the UK showed seafood with contamination proportional to the total releases of the plant rather than proportional to that year’s releases. This indicates that things just get worse over time, even more so with longer lived contamination sources.

Carbon 14, tritium and krypton 85 are the three major releases that will go out via the air stack at the plant. Iodine 131 is also released in considerable amounts. Technology currently exists to capture the tritium and carbon 14 but is not used at any reprocessing plant including Rokkasho, JNFL has spent 16 billion yen attempting to find a way to capture the krypton 85 but has decided to just release it all. CNIC calculates that the krypton 85 releases would cause 130 cancer deaths per year. These numbers are global, the contamination reach by Rokkasho would be far beyond Japan.


History of Similar Facilities

La Hague – France
The photo to the left shows the liquid waste pipe at the La Hague nuclear reprocessing plant on the Normandy coast of France. This pipe is similar to the one at Rokkasho and dumps La Hague’s radioactive waste into the English Channel. Greenpeace says that La Hague dumps “one million litres of liquid radioactive waste per day” into the ocean,  “the equivalent of 50 nuclear waste barrels”. IPPNW estimates the sea releases by the facility at 230 million litres of radioactive waste per year.  Contamination is found on nearby beaches. Even the IAEA admits the facility has released “up to 243 TBq of Cesium-137 and 142 TBq of Strontium-90 per year between 1970 and 1998”. Cesium 137 is ten times as high near La Hague than in other parts of the Atlantic. Greenpeace found significant contamination in the water, sediment and sea life near La Hague. IPPNW also cites “beta-activity of more than 200 million Bq/l; normal sea water activity lies at 12 Bq/l”. Air emissions found by Greenpeace were 93,000 Bq/m3 of Krypton-85, normal levels being 1-2  Bq/m3.  A French study found increased levels of leukemia in children near La Hague.




Sellafield – UK

Sellafield sits on the Irish Sea and has similar sea and air discharges to La Hague. Sellafield is responsible for 87% of the collective radiation dose to EC member states by way of their sea releases. The facility dumps eight million litres of nuclear waste into the sea each day, making the Irish Sea the most contaminated sea in the world. Sea water, sediment and sea life including food species like lobsters are all contaminated by Sellafield. Plutonium has been found in the house dust of coastal homes in Ireland, estimated to have originally been water releases that ended up back in the air. This creates a considerable health risk to anyone living in the area.

Contamination has also been found that groundwater, estuaries and soil in the area. Sellafield has been a source of multiple accidents and extra releases of contamination over the years. The facility released 25.70 Pbq of krypton 85 to the air in 2008. 120 Pbq were released in 2004. A 1998 report found areas near Sellafield to be more contaminated than areas near Chernobyl.
The area around Sellafield has been studied by Her Majasty’s Inspectorte of Pollution and Green Peace International and have found concentrations of plutonium (17, 00 Bq/m^2), americium-241 (15, 300 Bq/m^2), cobalt-60 (40 Bq/kg) and caesium-137 (7, 300 Bq/kg) all of which are higher in concentration when compared to the area around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine (Green Peace Press Release, 09.10.1998).”

A ten fold increase in childhood leukemia has been found near Sellafield.
This map shows the sea contamination from La Hague and Sellafield. The green color is the land, red is high radiation and orange/yellow less radiation diluting down to light blue. Of course, any fish swimming in this will absorb the radiation. All of this moves up the food chain to humans. The same thing happens in the air, with radioactive isotopes spreading distantly and impacting both animals and humans. Of course, all of this is invisible and is rarely if ever reported on in the mass media.


Public Reaction

The Rokkasho facility has had considerable criticism from locals and environmental experts. Local government officials see Rokkasho as a jobs creator for a rural region in need of jobs. The local governments around Rokkasho have received considerable amounts of money from central government sources and from TEPCO. These payments are cash given to a local government in trade for allowing a nuclear facility in that area. Discussions that the Rokkasho facility may be shut down caused the local governments to demand spent fuel stored at Rokkasho be sent back to the power companies it came from. Local officials also complained about a loss of jobs if the facility were to be shut down yet the years of decommissioning work needed to deal with what is already there would take decades. Many locals including a nearby farmer have been trying to block the plant for years. Hundreds of organizations including environmental groups, fishing cooperatives, surfers and consumer groups have been protesting this facility since at least 2004. This included marches in Tokyo and a petition with 810,000 signatures. The releases from Rokkasho put farm products and fisheries at risk, this played a considerable role in people’s awareness and resistance to the facility.


Consequences Of Rokkasho

The public worldwide is already very aware of the radioactive contamination off the east coast of Japan. This has been documented to have impacted fish as far away as the US. Not only has the contamination severely damaged the fishing industry in Fukushima and neighboring prefectures, it has to a lesser extent impacted the public perception of Pacific seafood. The closer eye on Fukushima reminded the world of the long lived after effects of Pacific atomic bomb testing, that is still being found in some Pacific seafood. Rokkasho has the ability to damage the reputation of the fishing industry further north of Fukushima, that is already struggling with public distrust. It also has the documented ability to damage sea life making them unsafe to eat.

JNFL admits they will be releasing considerable amounts of contamination into the air and sea, more than they already are today. What Rokkasho would release over its lifetime if at full production would be massive. Sellafield and La Hague show how a reprocessing facility can release amounts of contamination on par with a major nuclear disaster. The reach of Rokkasho to contaminate the environment would just add to what damage is already being done by the Fukushima disaster. As has been made clear by the Fukushima disaster, the contamination does not go away and does not dilute to negligible levels. It finds its way across the Pacific, down the Japanese coast and into the food supply.

The economic outcome is a negative, causing increases to electricity bills with no real benefit back to the consumer. Rokkasho’s existence also highlighted Japan’s nuclear waste dilemma. Even if they managed to reuse some of the fuel in Japanese reactors or sell it overseas they still have no place to put all this nuclear waste. Japan lacks a reliable site for a deep geological repository leaving them with no real plan for the handling of all this nuclear waste.



    Rokkasho Reprocessing Facility Wiki Entry
    Japanese Language Rokkasho Facility Wiki Entry
    Rokkasho Overview – CNIC
    The Truth About Nuclear Power: Japanese Nuclear Engineer Calls for Abolition – Koide Hiroaki
    Monju Fast Breeder Reactor Wiki Entry
    Nuclear Reprocessing Technology Wiki Entry
    World’s Largest Puzzle: Assembly of the ITER Cryostat
    JAEA – Naka Fusion Institute Website
    Nuclear power industry’s shady payments since Fukushima crisis – Asahi Shimbun
    JNFL Rokkasho Radioactive Releases Page
    Japan’s nuclear waste will spill from new plant’s chimney  – Sidney Morning Herald
    Fukushima Appeal – Reasons To Stop Using Nuclear Power
    Greenpeace – Nuclear Reprocessing Overview
    Greenpeace – Sellafield Nuclear Reprocessing Facility
    Clean Water Action – Reprocessing Nuclear Waste – How to Make a Bad Situation Worse
    The Student Movement of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War – La Hague Overview
    Radioactivity: Irish Sea Wiki Entry
    German La Hague Wiki Entry
    Nuclear Power and France: Setting the Record Straight – Beyond Nuclear via: Physicians for Social Responsibility
    Phys.Org – Quake risk at Japan atomic recycling plant: experts
    CNIC – Uranium Enrichment Plant Turns into a Big Waste Dump
    CNIC –  Defective Welding in Spent Fuel Storage Pool at Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant
    CNIC – Active Tests at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant
    IGSE – Sellafield Fact Sheet
  26. http://agreenr” 
    Tokai And Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant History, Accidents And Dangers
    OPINION: Reconsidering the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant – By Frank von Hippel: Kyodo News
    Rokkasho and a hard place – The government’s fudge on its nuclear future remains unconvincing: The Economist
  29. –  Defective Welding in Spent Fuel Storage Pool at Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant
  30. Newsletter – April 2002
    Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant: Leakage from Storage Pool, Defective Construction Work, and Escalating Costs
    CNIC – Defective Welding in Spent Fuel Storage Pool at Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant
    CNIC – Uranium trials begin at Rokkasho
    Rokkasho N-fuel plant completion delayed – Yomiuri
  35. spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plants. Aomori Prefecture.

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