- The decommissioning of the Fukushima 1 nuclear plant
is delayed by a single problem: Where to dispose of the uranium fuel rods?
Many of those rods are extremely radioactive and partially melted, and
some contain highly lethal plutonium.
- Besides the fissile fuel inside the plant's six reactors,
more than 7 tons of spent rods have to be removed to a permanent storage
site before workers can bury the Fukushima facility under concrete. The
rods cannot be permanently stored in Japan because the country's new waste
storage centers on the northeast tip of Honshu are built on unsuitable
land. The floors of the Rokkasho reprocessing facility and Mutsu storage
unit are cracked from uneven sinking into the boggy soil.
- Entombment of the rods inside the Fukushima 1 reactors
carries enormous risks because the footing of landfill cannot support
the weight of the fuel rods in addition to the reactors and cooling water
inside the planned concrete containment walls. The less reactive spent
fuel would have to be kept inside air-cooled dry casks. The powerful earthquakes
that frequently strike the Tohoku region will eventually undermine the
foundations, causing radioactive wastewater to pour unstoppably into the
Pacific Ocean. The rods must therefore go to another country.
- American Bad Faith
- Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed by Japan
in 1970, Washington's negotiators stipulated that used nuclear fuel from
Japanese reactors must by law be shipped to the United States for storage
or reprocessing to prevent the development of an atomic bomb. Washington
has been unable to fulfill its treaty obligations to Tokyo due to the public
outcry against the proposed Yucca Mountain storage facility near Las Vegas.
- A panel convened by the Obama administration has just
recommended the set up of a network of storage sites across the United
States, a controversy certain to revive the anti-nuclear sentiments during
the upcoming election campaign. The American nuclear industry has its own
stockpile of more than 60,000 tons of spent fuel - not counting waste from
reactors used for military and research purposes - leaving no space for
Fukushima's rods inside the Nevada disposal site, if indeed it is ever
- To Continental Asia
- The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) has allocated
1 trillion yen ($12 billion) in funds for nuclear waste disposal. Areva,
the French nuclear monopoly, has teamed up with Tepco to find an overseas
storage site. So far, the Tepco-Areva team have quietly contacted three
Asian countries - Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia -- to set up a center
for "reprocessing", a euphemism for nuclear dump site.
- Among the threesome, China was the top choice for the
Japanese nuclear establishment, which has confidence in Beijing's ability
to safeguard nuclear secrets from its citizenry and even from the top leaders.
Japan's space agency, which keeps 24-hour satellite observation over every
nuclear-related facility in China, possesses the entire record of radiation
leaks there. Since Beijing withholds this sort of data from the public,
the Japanese side felt it had the necessary leverage in talks with Chinese
- Though the nuclear-sector bureaucrats were initially
eager to receive bundles of yen, the proposal was blown away by the salt
craze that swept over China. Within a couple of weeks of the Fukushima
meltdowns, millions of shoppers emptied supermarket shelves on rumors that
iodized salt could prevent radiation-caused thyroid cancer. The Chinese
public is rightfully fearful of health-related scandals after discoveries
of melamine in milk, growth hormones in pork, pesticides in vegetables,
antibiotics in fish and now radioactive fallout over farmland.
- A nuclear disposal deal would require trucks loaded with
radioactive cargo to roll through a densely populated port, perhaps Tianjin
or Ningbo, in the dead of night. There is no way that secret shipments
wouldn't be spotted by locals with smart phones, triggering a mass exodus
from every city, town and village along the route to the dumping grounds
in China's far west. Thus, the skittishness of the ordinary Chinese citizen
knocked out the easiest of nefarious plans.
- Principle of Industrial Recovery
- A more logical choice for overseas storage is in the
sparsely populated countries that supply uranium ore to Japan, particularly
Australia and Canada. As exporters of uranium, Canberra and Ottawa are
ultimately responsible for storage of the nuclear waste under the legal
principle of industrial recovery.
- The practice of industrial recovery is already well-established
in the consumer electronics and household appliances sectors where manufacturers
are required by an increasing number of countries to take back and recycle
used television sets, computers and refrigerators.
- Under the principle, uranium mining giants like Rio Tinto
and CAMECO would be required to take back depleted uranium. The cost of
waste storage would then be factored into the export price for uranium
ore. The added cost is passed along to utility companies and ultimately
the consumer through a higher electricity rate. If the market refuses to
bear the higher price for uranium as compared with other fuels, then nuclear
power will go the way of the steam engine.
- Australian and Canadian politicians are bound to opportunistically
oppose the return of depleted uranium since any shipments from Fukushima
would be met by a massive turnout of "not-in-my-backyard" protesters.
The only way for Tokyo to convince the local politicos to go along quietly
is by threatening to publish an online list of the bribe-takers in parliament
who had earlier backed uranium mining on behalf of the Japanese interests.
- Nuclear's Cost-Efficiency
- The question then arise whether nuclear power, when long-term
storage fees are included, is competitive with investment in renewable
energy such as wind, solar, hydro and tidal resources. Renewable energy
probably has the edge since they don't create waste. Natural gas remains
the undisputed price beater wherever it is available in abundance. In a
free market without hidden subsidies, nuclear is probably doomed.
- In a lapse of professionalism, the International Atomic
Energy Commission (IAEA) has never seriously addressed nuclear-waste disposal
as an industrywide issue. Based on the ration of spent rods to reactor
fuel inside U.S. nuclear facilities, there are close to 200,000 metric
tons of high-level nuclear waste at the 453 civilian nuclear-energy plants
worldwide. Yet not a single permanent storage site has ever been opened
- The Fukushima 1 dilemma shows that the issues of cost-efficiency
and technological viability can no longer be deferred or ignored. Ratings
agencies report that Tepco's outstanding debt has soared beyond $90 billion,
meaning that it cannot cover future costs of storing spent rods from its
Kashiwazaki and Fukushima 2 nuclear plants. The Japanese government's debt
has soared to 200 percent of GDP. Neither entity can afford the rising
cost of nuclear power.
- The inability of Tepco or the government to pay for nuclear
waste disposal puts the financial liability squarely on its partner companies
and suppliers, including GE, Toshiba, Hitachi, Kajima Construction and
especially the sources of the uranium, CAMECO and Rio Tinto and the governments
of Canada and Australia. A fundamental rule of both capitalism and civil
law is that somebody has to pay.
- Last Stop
- Since Australia and Canada aren't in any hurry to take
back the radioactive leftovers, that leaves Japan and treaty-partner United
States with only one option for quick disposal- Mongolia.
- Ulan Bator accepts open-pit mining for coal and copper,
which are nothing but gigantic toxic sites, so why not take the melted-down
nuclear rods? Its GDP, ranked 136 among the world's economies, is estimated
to be $5.8 billion in 2010. Thus, $12 billion is an unimaginable sum for
one more hole in the ground.
- Not that Mongolia would get the entirety of the budget,
since the nuclear cargo would have to transit through the Russian Far East.
Unlike the health-conscious Chinese, the population of Nakhodka or Vladivostok
are used to playing fast-and-loose with radioactive materials and vodka.
- Even if the mafia that runs the Russian transport industry
were to demand a disproportionate cut, Mongolia's 3 million inhabitants
would be overjoyed at gaining about $2,000 each, more than the average
annual income, that is if the money is divided evenly after the costs of
building the dump.
- Realistically, the Mongolian people are unlikely to receive
a penny, since the money will go into a trust fund for maintenance costs.
That's because $12 billion spread over the half-life of uranium - 700 million
years - is equivalent to $17 in annual rent. That doesn't even cover kibble
bits for the watchdog on duty, much less the cooling system. Not that anyone
will be counting since by the time uranium decays to a safe level, fossils
will be the sole remnant of human life on Earth.
- Illusory, shortsighted greed will surely triumph in Mongolia,
and that leaves a question of moral accountability for the rest of us.
Will the world community feel remorse for dumping its nuclear mess onto
an ancient culture that invented boiled mutton, fermented mare's milk and
Genghis Khan? For guilt-ridden diplomats from Tokyo and Washington wheedling
the dirty deal in Ulan Bator, here's the rebuttal: Did the national hero,
the Great Khan, ever shed any tears or feel pangs of guilt? There's no
need for soul-searching. A solution is at hand.