Sunday 19 August 2012

Nuclear Waste

Back to work Friday and Saturday after the o-bon holidays but it's quiet in the office. Time to catch up on paperwork including some surveys to fill in. The government Energy and Resources Agency wants to know how much energy we used last year. Toshiaki and me in one small office? Not much. One of the best things I did for the environment was selling the cardboard box business to Rengo. In the old factory our ancient oil-fired boiler powered an antiquated corrugating machine which steamed the fluting pattern on the paper, glued it, dried it, creased it, cut it. Now we buy the corrugated sheets in. They're produced much more efficiently at Rengo's state of the art factory in Yabuki 30 miles away which has solar panels supplying all the factory's energy needs in daylight hours. Brilliant.

Did you see the news that America has frozen permissions for new nuclear plants pending progress on how to deal with nuclear waste? Up until now the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was happy to have spent fuel stored at nuclear plants until a permanent nuclear waste respository was completed. But soon after taking office Obama put a stop to plans to build such a facility at Yukka Mountain in Nevada. So there's nowhere to dump the stuff. Before Fukushima, most people probably didn't even realise that spent fuel was stored at nuclear power plants. It's kind of reassuring that what we're going through here in Fukushima is making people think and having an effect on policy.

Coincidentally, Japan's been having second thoughts on its policy for nuclear waste disposal. Up till now, policy was to recycle all spent fuel. This entails extracting uranium and plutonium to produce MOX fuel. Unit 3 at Fukushima Daiichi was one of only a handful of reactors using MOX fuel, or 'pluthermal' as it's called here. This recycling was supposed to be an interim measure until fast breeder reactors were developed for full scale utilisation of plutonium. (The technology can be used for making nuclear weapons but Japan with its Peace Constitution got special permission.) There is a prototype reactor, Monju in Fukui, but it's been plagued by problems. There's also an expensive reprocessing facility at Rokkasho in Aomori which is not being used either. So the government has abandoned this policy and is looking at underground storage which is cheaper. But, as you can imagine, there are big questions about whether this is safe in earthquake prone Japan. (I've put some of the technical terms in a list below. They're words you hear all the time in Japan but hard to get your head round.)

As I left the office Saturday evening, came upon long queues at the station for trains to neighbouring town of Sukagawa. The fireworks display is on tonight and it's one of the biggest. Some girls in yukata, many tweeting away on mobile phones. Nice.
Good night

Stop Press: (Sunday 19 August)
Hosono, Minister of the Nuclear Accident, has just announced details of the interim storage facilities. There are to be 12 (!), most of them in a band around Fukushima Daiichi (2 in Futaba, 9 in Okuma), with one south of Fukushima Daini in Naraha. Negotiations re-start.

原発   genpatsu
nuclear power plant   

使用済み核燃料   shiyozumi kakunenryo
spent nuclear fuel

高レベル放射性廃棄物   ko-reberu hoshasei haikibutsu
highly radioactive waste

最終処分場   saishu shobunjo
permanent repository (somewhere that's going to keep the waste safe for 100,000 years, like the underground facility in Onkalo in Finland)

中間貯蔵  chukan chozo
interim storage (like they're planning near Fukushima Daiichi, to take waste for 30 years)

核燃料サイクル kakunenryo saikuru
nuclear fuel recycling (Japanese policy up to now)

再処理  saishori

プルサーマル  purusahmaru 
 'pluthermal', a Japanese word (from the English plutonium and thermal) used for the plan to make MOX fuel from spent fuel

And finally,
トイレのないマンション toire no nai manshon
A bit vulgar but used to describe the nuclear waste problem: it's like an apartment without a toilet!

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