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The sad, sad story of flushless toilets – Japan’s spent fuel pools

Tony Boys's picture

The Japanese often refer to their nuclear power plants (NPPs) as apartments without toilets. This is due to the complete lack of planning by the power companies and the government regarding the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. As Japan gears up to restart its NPPs in the near future, the spent fuel pools are beginning to look more and more like flushless toilets...

Earlier this year, the Japanese government announced that it would formulate a national energy plan for 2030 that would include the percentage of nuclear power in the energy mix at that time, and put forward three options 0%, 15%, and 20-25%. (e.g. see my Japan’s Energy “Options” ) The government appeared to favour the 15% option (existing NPPs minus those over 40 years old in 2030), but public opinion came down heavily (70-80%) in favour of the “zero option” (which some mistakenly assumed meant an immediate nuclear phaseout).

When the government’s Energy and Environment Conference conclusion was announced last week we all did a double-take because they said they had chosen the “zero option” but have left the door open to a final nuclear phaseout sometime in the 2050s (maybe – since the fate of NPPs now under construction and planned is not yet certain and existing NPPs may still get up to 20-year extensions on their 40-year “lifetimes.” However, it also looks likely that Uranium resources will be scarce by the 2030s, so world nuclear power may all be winding down by that time anyway.). However, the people are not fooled, and respect for politicians has reached an all-time rock-bottom low. We were all astounded again when even this so-called “zero option” was ferociously opposed by Japan’s business circles, leading to failure to produce a cabinet decision endorsing the decision of the Energy and Environment Conference (itself consisting of cabinet members) that had come up with the “zero option” conclusion.

So, although the government makes sweet (and effectively meaningless) promises about the safe operation of the NPPs that are now undoubtedly going to be restarted, the one story it and the power companies do not like to mention (though all anti-nuke campaigns do) is what’s happening in the spent fuel pools at each of the NPPs.

Of the 57 fuel pools (50 reactors now; a few reactors share spent fuel pools and then each NPP has a common fuel pool - see “Japan SPF data.pdf” attached to this article.) 35 will run out of space for spent fuel in under 5 years. 14 have between 5 and 9 years to go and the remaining 8 have 7 between 10 and 14 years and one (in Hokkaido) has 28 years to go. Have a guess which NPP has the least remaining space available in its SFPs… It’s TEPCO’s F#1 Units 5 & 6 and their common pool, which each have only 0.7 years of remaining space!! (TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa#7 has only 0.2 years remaining!) There’s no way those reactors can start again till large amounts of spent nuclear fuel are removed, BUT the priority on the F#1 site is Unit 4, and that is reckoned (by Arnie Gundersen in his interview with Dr Helen Caldicott – Downloadable mp3) to take till 2015-2016!!

Of course, the power companies could remove the spent fuel assemblies (a ton each, according to Arnie Gundersen) and eventually place them in dry casks, but that costs money. Dry casks also are not the “final solution.” In the past, the next step was reprocessing and then reuse of the Uranium and Plutonium gained to generate more electricity (or for use in nuclear weapons). However Japan is now mulling over whether or not to forego the “nuclear cycle” – i.e. to give up on reprocessing (which it has never been able to run), and simply move to final disposal of the waste. Kingston (Japan’s Nuclear Village, Jeff Kingston ) correctly points out that this may be the “beginning of the end of nuclear power in Japan,” since once the lie of the “nuclear cycle” is revealed it will become clear that nuclear wastes cannot be recycled ad infinitum (they never could) but must eventually be somehow flushed out of the system (i.e. the environment we live in).

Some of the nuclear waste is currently stored at the site of the reprocessing facility at Rokkasho Village, in the north of Honshu – Aomori Prefecture. There is a “mid-term” storage facility there, (and one or two under construction) but the locals are saying, “If you’re not going to reprocess, then we don’t want the waste stored here (unto eternity). Please remove it.” But to where? Assuming another “mid-term” storage facility could be built (more mega-bucks), that is still not the final solution for the spent nuclear waste.

[More details at Rolling Update 3 on the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster - see entries for April 23 (Japan's Spent Nuclear Fuel and the Shimokita Peninsula) and April 30 (Nuclear Power Isn’t Cheap!), and Japan’s Establishment Grasping At Straws To Keep Nuclear Status Quo]

As you may know, no one has the final solution for spent nuclear waste. The US has apparently abandoned Yucca Mountain. The Finns have built Onkalo (see the movie Into Eternity, where the designers scratch their collective heads and declare themselves unsure whether it’s OK or not), the Swedes are building a facility UNDER the Baltic Sea (see Sweden's final spent nuclear fuel repository at Forsmark NPP), the French, for all their claims of having “conquered” the nuclear cycle (while the reprocessing plant at Le Havre vies for first place as Europe’s most polluting facility with the UK’s Sellafield), are storing waste nuclear fuel in Siberia (Arnie Gundersen in the interview mentioned above). Japan has “plans” to construct a final repository for its nuclear waste and has come up with three candidate areas (in the north, would you believe? Tokyo Newspaper, 2012/9/18) but this is not being taken very seriously given the active seismic nature of the real estate.

As you can see, the yummy nuclear tale is quickly turning extremely yuccy. Our generation, the one that has lived from just after WWII to now, has “enjoyed” the dubious fruits of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, as well as consuming the lion’s share of fossil fuels, and is now in the process of contaminating the planet with nuclear waste for the next thousand generations. How will these future generations judge us? They will HATE us (if there is anyone around, because infertility may make humanity extinct – See Busby on the Jerusalem sperm-count study: No more births in Israel by 2020*), just as we now totally condemn the actions of the “nuclear village” and their hangers-on. There may be a general election in Japan this autumn. It will be interesting to see if the Japanese people will wake up to the notion that it is not a good idea to have their future determined by politicians and business people who are largely science-illiterate and who have apparently swallowed hook, line and sinker, the lies and half-truths about “safe” nuclear power and radiation fed to them by their nuclear village pals.

* Here’s a recent follow-up to the Jerusalem sperm count study that suggests Israeli men may be effectively infertile by 2030. Please note that the study does not mention radiation or Uranium as the cause (or one of the causes) of the fertility decline. In the Youtube video above, however, Chris Busby claims that it is the Uranium used in weapons (not only depleted Uranium, apparently) during the wars in the Middle East over the last two decades that is causing at least part of the problem.

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