Japan, U.S. plan a nuclear waste site in the remote desert state
Reuters reports that Japan and the United States plan to work together to build a spent nuclear fuel storage facility in Mongolia. The announced purpose of the site would be to take back spent fuel from countries that buy new nuclear reactors from manufacturers in both countries, As a practical matter, this means exports by GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse (Toshiba) would benefit from the deal if it comes to pass.
Deal or no deal?
Work began on the radioactive waste deal between the U.S., Japan, and Mongolia shortly before the Fukushima crisis hit on March 11. However, the exact status of the talks is in doubt as the Mongolian embassy in Vienna, Austria, told the IAEA on May 10 no such talks have taken place.
According to Reuters May 8, a Trade Ministry official said Japan, U.S. and Mongolia officials discussed possible construction of a nuclear waste storage facility for countries with nuclear power plants but no spent fuel storage capability of their own. That mandate could also include the domestic spent fuel inventories of Japan and the U.S.
In its statement to the press May 10 the Mongolian embassy said, "As the Nuclear Energy Agency of Mongolia has pointed out in April, there have not been any talks with foreign organizations or individuals on the issue of accepting nuclear waste of other countries since there are no legal grounds for such talks."
The Wall Street Journal reported May 10 that the U.S. Department of Energy denied that a deal to send spent fuel to Mongolia was in the works. A spokesman for the agency told the newspaper that informal talks had been misinterpreted by a Japanese newspaper.
Reprocessing and waste storage needs
Japanese language news media reports indicate the facility is needed to compete with Russian exports. The Russians take back their spent fuel reprocessing it at domestic facilities. Russia has recently signed deals with Vietnam and Turkey that contain that provision. It is already committed to taking back spent fuel from the four reactors it is building in India and for the 12 more it will build there.
The U.S. has no spent fuel reprocessing capability and has resisted building one despite decades of success in France with well-understood technology. Japan's efforts to build a reprocessing plant have met with repeated technical setbacks with some caused by the carelessness of construction workers.
Halting the Yucca football game?
The other problem both the U.S. and Japan have in common is that neither has a geologic repository for high level radioactive waste. Even if both countries had reprocessing capabilities, they would still need deep geologic disposal of remaining radioactive residuals. The U.S has turned the licensing of the proposed Yucca Mountain site into a political football.
Worse, the appearance of political motivations in the handling of the Yucca Mountain licensing issue by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko have now made him a target for House Republicans. They would like nothing better than to knock off the protégé of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Jaczko is a former aide to Reid, and before that to Rep, Ed Markey, the arch druid of the anti-nuclear faction among House Democrats. House Republicans, who support building new reactors, see Jaczko as a symbol of anti-nuclear sentiments in the Obama administration.
Mongolia sees value in spent fuel
Mongolia plans to have its first nuclear power plant by 2020. It also has plans to build nuclear fuel production plants (enrichment) to tap its rich uranium resources. The country has no public consultation process which means any decisions made by the government will direct the resources of state-own nuclear facilities.
Mongolia could solve the problem Japan and the U.S. have for disposing of spent nuclear fuel. This seems to be politically expedient in the short term, but economically unwise in the long-term. The spent fuel has tremendous energy value which Japan and the U.S. would be in effect handing over to Mongolia.
A plausible scenario is that the Mongolian government would welcome the opportunity to build a reprocessing plant for the spent commercial fuel from Japan and the U.S. to make MOX and re-sell it on global markets.
Are the political barriers to reprocessing so significant that Japan and the U.S. would give away such a valuable resource to resolve them?
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