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Screening process: No major development

February 12, 2015


Screenings of nuclear fuel facilities in Japan not moving forward




December last year marked one year since the implementation of new safety standards applying to nuclear fuel facilities, which play a significant role in the nation's nuclear fuel cycle. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) is performing safety checks of such facilities alongside inspections of nuclear power plants, but so far there have been no major developments.

NRA member Akira Ishiwatari visited a reprocessing facility for spent nuclear fuel in Aomori Prefecture in December last year. It was the first full-scale, on-site inspection to be conducted since the facility's operator, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., applied for a safety check in January 2014 with an eye to start operations. The focus of the inspection was whether an active fault lay beneath the plant. If a fault existed, the main structures would need further reinforcement against earthquakes.

After examining 10 spots including geological formations in trenches that were dug, Ishiwatari told reporters that he wanted the data for drilling that was underway, indicating that it would take quite some time to reach a decision on the facility.

Applications for safety screening of 15 nuclear fuel facilities have been submitted to the NRA. Among them are four major Japan Nuclear Fuel facilities, including a reprocessing facility and a MOX fuel facility, together with a reactor for university research. The reprocessing and MOX fuel facilities form the core of Japan's nuclear fuel cycle.

The MOX fuel that is processed at the reprocessing facility in Aomori Prefecture is used at nuclear power plants in so-called "pluthermal" systems. The reactor at the Oma Nuclear Power Plant in the prefecture, to be operated by J-Power (Electric Power Development Co.), would be the first commercial reactor in the world to use 100 percent MOX fuel. A safety screening application for this plant has already been filed.

The Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, which was designed to generate more nuclear fuel than it consumes, also plays a pivotal role in the nuclear fuel cycle. A total of 99.3 percent of the uranium used as fuel at nuclear power plants consists of Uranium-238, which is not fissile. Monju has been touted as a "dream reactor" as it can break this down into fissile plutonium, increasing the amount of nuclear fuel.

However, the outlook for each of these facilities is unknown. NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka has said the Oma reactor will be evaluated carefully, as there are no other cases of 100 percent MOX fuel operation.

As for the Monju reactor, it was learned in November 2012 that a massive number of checks had not been performed properly, which effectively resulted in it being ordered to a halt. The operator, Japan Atomic Energy Agency, has sought to revise its administration system, but there are no immediate prospects of the order being lifted.

Similarly, in the screening of the reprocessing facility, the NRA and Japan Nuclear Fuel have not seen eye to eye. Five screening meetings were held in January, but one NRA official said all that happened was that people gathered for the meetings. Kazuhiro Matsumura, senior executive vice president of Japan Nuclear Fuel, stressed, "We are putting full effort into explaining the issues" However, a critical NRA official commented, "The grounds for their explanations in the screening process are lacking. They're just trying to get it over and done with simply and take the easiest route."

In screenings for nuclear power plants, the No. 1 and 2 reactors at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co. have been granted safety clearance. Permission was similarly granted to the idled No. 3 and 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Takahama Nuclear Power Plant on Feb. 12. To date, when power companies have failed to respond clearly to NRA requests during nuclear power plant screening, the screening process has tended to remain at a standstill. As such, the stance of Japan Nuclear Fuel is likely to be tested.


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