Japan’s nuclear plants are short of storage for spent fuel. A remote town could have the solution

The Japanese government is promoting the greater use of nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source, but the country’s nuclear plants are running out of storage capacity

Nagashima island
This photo taken on Aug. 2, 2023, shows the Nagashima island of Kaminoseki town, southwestern Japan.AP

A Japanese town said Friday it has agreed to a geological study to determine its suitability as an interim storage site for spent nuclear fuel.

Kaminoseki, a small town in the southwestern prefecture of Yamaguchi, said it would accept the offer of a survey by Chugoku Electric Power Co., one of two major utility operators, along with Kansai Electric Power Co., whose spent fuel storage pools are almost full.

The Japanese government is promoting the greater use of nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source, but the country’s nuclear plants are running out of storage capacity.

The problem stems from Japan’s stalled nuclear fuel recycling program to reprocess plutonium from spent fuel for reuse. The government has continued to pursue the program, despite serious technical setbacks. A plutonium-burning Monju reactor failed and is being decommissioned, while the launch of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in northern Japan has been delayed for almost 30 years.

After the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011, many reactors were temporarily taken offline and their restarts delayed, helping to reduce the spent fuel stockpile.

However, when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government decided to reverse a phaseout and maximize nuclear power as clean energy, concerns over the lack of storage space were rekindled.

Earlier this month, Chugoku put forward a proposal to build a storage facility jointly with Kansai Electric, but the plan was met by angry protests from residents, who surrounded the mayor and yelled at him.

Chugoku Electric’s plan to build a nuclear power plant in Kaminoseki has been stalled for more than a decade since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, delaying subsidies for the remote town, whose population is aging and shrinking.

“The town will only get poorer if we just keep waiting,” Kaminoseki Mayor Tetsuo Nishi told a televised news conference Friday. “We should do whatever is available now.”

Kansai Electric, Japan’s largest nuclear plant operator, is urgently seeking additional storage for spent fuel: the cooling pools at its plants are more than 80% full. The company pledged to find a potential interim storage site by the end of this year.

About 19,000 tons of spent fuel, a byproduct of nuclear power generation, is stored at power plants across Japan, taking up about 80% of their storage capacity, according to the economy and industry ministry.

The continuation of spent fuel reprocessing program and the delay have only added to Japan’s already large plutonium stockpile, raising international concern. Japan also lacks a final repository for high-level nuclear waste.

An intermediate facility is designed to keep nuclear spent fuel in dry casks for decades until it is moved to a reprocessing or to a final repository. Experts say it is a much safer option than keeping it in uncovered cooling pools at their plants.

If the storage is actually built, it will be the second such facility in Japan. The only other one is in Mutsu, near Rokkasho, which is reserved for Tokyo Electric Power Co. and a smaller utility.

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