Japan OKs Restart of First Two Nuclear Units, New Delay at Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant

Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s twin Sendai nuclear units in Japan’s Kagoshima Prefecture on Nov. 7 got the government’s green light to restart.

Once back online, likely in 2015, the units will be the first to restart of Japan’s 48 reactors that were shuttered for safety checks following the March 2011 Fukushima accident.

Kagoshima Prefecture Governor Yuichiro Ito’s approval to restart the Sendai pressurized water reactors (each 890 MW) follows the Oct. 28 approvals from the mayor and local assembly of Satsumasendai City. The reactors were shut down in May 2011.

Kyushu Electric must now satisfy a number of legal requirements, including obtaining approval of work plans, operational safety programs, and pre-service inspections. It means that the restarts are not expected until at least next year.

At least 18 reactors at 12 nuclear plants across the nation are undergoing safety assessments by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) under new standards promulgated in July 2013. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to restart all reactors that pass safety reviews.

The news, declared by some analysts as a major political milestone, sent the world’s stagnant uranium prices soaring for the first time in 16 months. Spot prices of uranium have climbed 39% to about $39.25 per pound since June.

Japan, however, continues to deal with troubles at the quake-stricken Fukushima site, where decommissioning work is being carried out. On Oct. 30, the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE), an arm of Japan’s Economy, Trade, and Industry Ministry, reported that about 88% of spent fuel assemblies have been removed from the Unit 4 spent fuel pool—missing the Nov. 4 deadline set last year. That work is now expected to be completed in December. Removal of spent fuel at Unit 1 has also been pushed back from the original target date in 2017 to 2019. Retrieval of debris at that unit has been delayed from 2020 to 2025.

Meanwhile, the long-delayed Rokkasho reprocessing plant, a locally designed vitrification plant for high-level waste that was scheduled to be completed this November, won’t be finished until March 2016, developer Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL) announced on Oct. 30.

JNFL completed testing of the facility’s vitrification facility in May 2013. But the plant in Aomori prefecture may not begin fully reprocessing nuclear fuel until 2019—more than 25 years after construction first began. Commissioning at the plant has been halted more than 19 times because of technical and financial problems, according to the World Nuclear Association.

JNFL blames the latest delay on an examination of the plant’s compatibility with new regulatory standards by the NRA, saying the review will take 18 months rather than the six originally anticipated. Any needed retrofits deemed necessary as a result of the NRA’s review will need at least nine more months on top of that, the company said.

The country’s waste management policy seemingly continues to focus on reprocessing before underground disposal. On Oct. 23, a government working group began discussing the country’s geological waste disposal options and are expected to set down specific conditions and criteria for site selection.

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)