EDITORIAL: Dealing with nuclear waste a pressing concern with Takahama reactor restart
Kansai Electric Power Co. restarted the No. 4 reactor at its Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture on Feb. 26.
The 870-megawatt pressurized water reactor became the fourth to resume operations since stricter safety guidelines were introduced after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
The No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, as well as the No. 3 reactor at the Takahama facility, had already been brought back online.
The No. 4 reactor at the Takahama plant, like the No. 3 reactor, uses mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel consisting of plutonium and uranium to generate electricity.
What concerns us is whether local residents will be safely and smoothly evacuated in the event of a severe accident at the plant. The decision to resume operations is highly questionable in light of the lessons learned from the calamitous accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Earlier this month, a small amount of radioactive water was found to have leaked near purification equipment installed in the auxiliary structure of the No. 4 reactor building during a test to send water down the primary coolant pipe connected to the reactor.
The cause of the leak was a loose bolt in a valve, according to the utility.
The triple meltdown at the Fukushima plant five years ago has made Japanese far more aware of safety concerns when it comes to nuclear power generation.
Kansai Electric claims it has checked all other valves. Even so, the utility must realize it is assuming a heavy responsibility with regard to the overall safety of the reactor it has restarted.
Operating a reactor inevitably produces additional spent nuclear fuel. What is needed now is a fresh, hard look at the intractable challenge of what to do with nuclear waste.
At Kansai Electric’s Takahama, Mihama and Oi nuclear plants, about 70 percent of the capacity of the spent fuel pools is already in use. If all nine reactors at these plants are brought back on stream, the storage pools will reach their capacity limit in seven to eight years.
Under the government’s nuclear fuel recycling program, spent fuel is supposed to be reprocessed at a special plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, to separate plutonium for fresh use as fuel.
But the completion of the reprocessing plant has been delayed repeatedly, with no prospect of actual operation.
In addition, spent MOX fuel produced by a reactor burning a mix of uranium and plutonium in plutonium-thermal (pluthermal) operations cannot be reprocessed at the Rokkasho plant.
Since the government has made no decision with regard to the disposal of spent fuel, the utility can only store used MOX within the plant, at least for the time being.
The consequences of postponing a decision on how to tackle these vital problems are now making themselves felt.
Consumers, for their part, have long taken for granted that atomic energy will generate much of the electricity they consume. They should not simply foist the responsibility for dealing with the problems on the government or the utilities.
Society as a whole needs to show a sense of responsibility by getting involved in debate on the future of nuclear waste disposal in this country.
People in the Kansai region served by the utility and Fukui Prefecture, where the reactors are located, may be in a position to take the leadership in initiating the debate.
Worried about the expected increase in spent nuclear fuel at the plant, the Fukui prefectural government is calling on Kansai Electric and the central government to build an interim storage facility outside the prefecture.
Last November, the company promised to decide on the location of such a facility around 2020 and start operating it around 2030.
The utility has indicated its intention to build the envisioned storage facility in the Kansai region, which consumes the electricity generated at the plant. But no local government in the region has expressed any willingness to accept such a site.
This surely is an issue the communities that use the power should tackle.
Kansai Electric may as well propose talks over the issue with the Union of Kansai Governments, composed of the governors of the prefectures and the mayors of the ordinance-designated cities in the Kansai region.
If the Fukui prefectural government is also allowed to sit at the negotiating table, it will be a first step toward mending the relationship between areas where nuclear power plants are located and markets for power generated at the plants. The relationship has been strained by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
We realize the talks would not produce any real solution quickly. But it is no longer possible to avoid addressing the issue.