Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Japan & U.S. pursue spent fuel disposal in Mongolia

Japan Times says non-denial denials won’t wash

mongolia_uranium_mapThe Japan Times has again reported that the U.S. and Japan are in negotiations with Mongolia to draft an agreement to create a facility there for management and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and nuclear fuel production.

In short, it could be a place where spent fuel is taken for storage and reprocessing. The most likely use of the facility is as an international fuel bank.

This is the second time the English language newspaper has reported it has copies of documents outlining the scope of the proposed agreement. [See Idaho Samizdat May 10, 2011Will US Spent Fuel Find a Home in Mongolia?”

The Japan Times reports July 20 that the draft statement calls for “comprehensive fuel services” in which Mongolia exports uranium and nuclear fuel to other countries and receives spent fuel for disposal and/or reprocessing. According to the documents cited by the newspaper, both Japan and the U.S. could be involved in shipping their spent fuel there and in mining and processing uranium for export as nuclear fuel for commercial light water reactors.

According to the World Nuclear Organization, in a country profile of Mongolia;

  • Uranium was produced from the Dornod deposit in Mongolia by Russian interests to 1995.
  • Mongolia has substantial known uranium resources and geological prospects for more.
  • Since 2008 Russia has re-established its position in developing Mongolian uranium.
  • According to the 2009 Red Book, Mongolia has 49,000 tU in Reasonably Assured Resources.

The draft agreement also calls for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to provide technical support in the development of spent fuel storage facilities. The IAEA would also be involved in inspections assuming uranium enrichment facilities are built there.

One of the objectives of the planned agreement is to make Mongolia the host country for an international fuel bank that would provide reliable fuel services to countries that forgo uranium enrichment as part of the development of their civilian nuclear energy programs.

Toshiba lobbying effort

The Manicihi news reports that Japanese nuclear giant Toshiba is lobbying senior U.S. government officials to promote a nuclear fuel storage and fuel production facility in Mongolia. The newspaper, which is has an English language edition, based its report on a July 1 Japanese language report in the Kyodo News.

Daniel PonemanAccording to the Kyodo News report, that newspaper has obtained a copy of a letter dated May 12, 2011 sent from Westinghouse (owned by Toshiba) to U.S. Undersecretary of Energy Daniel Poneman (right).

The letter, reportedly signed by Tobshia President Norio Sasaki, calls for a program called ‘Comprehensive Fuel Supply (CFS).’

It lays out the need for a public relations campaign to counter opposition to the plan for the site in Mongolia. According to the newspaper, Toshiba and U.S. government sources confirmed the existence of the letter. In earlier statements, Poneman had denied that active negotiations were taking place.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“We must recognize that the CFS project has been publicized [globally]. . . Toshiba finds value in CFS because it adds value to Mongolia’s natural resources and will contribute to the country’s economic growth, while the interim storage solution will bring greater meaning to an international nonproliferation regime.”

It adds that Toshiba wants both countries to continue to pursue CFS despite the concerns emerging from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Presumably, Toshiba is not deterred by recent statements by Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan who said his personal views were that nuclear energy should be phased out in Japan.

Skeptics weigh in

The Kyodo News and Manichi newspaper reports also note the views of anonymous critics of the planned nuclear spent fuel storage facility. Among the objections are whether China and Russia would agree to the plan.

trans_siberian_railroad_mapThe Trans-siberian railroad crosses Mongolia from Irkutsk, Russia to Beijing, China. Mongolia is landlocked so the only way to get the uranium out or the spent fuel in is via rail through one or both of these countries.

  • Map of China segment of Trans Siberian railway (right)

Also, the question was raised whether this program would produce a change in Japan’s spent fuel reprocessing and fast reactor programs.

In an possibly related development, Japanese Prime Minister Kan told Kyodo News July 20 that his government is reviewing Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling policy. He told a parliamentary budget committee the future of the 280 MW Monju fast breeder reactor prototype was under review.

The reactor when operational is expected to extract plutonium for use in MOX fuel to get more value out of spent fuel from commercial light water reactors.

The project has had a series of technical setbacks including a piece of an overhead crane that fell into the reactor. It took months to get it out safely resulting in new startup delays.

According to a June 23 Reuters report, Japan has invested over $11 billion in the project since its inception in the 1980s.

Demand for nuclear fuel in Asia & Middle East

The question becomes who are the potential customers for reliable fuel services in Asia? China has its own facilities for the complete nuclear fuel cycle. However, Russia is building the first of eight planned nuclear reactors in Vietnam and other developing nations are considering small modular reactors to boost their energy supplies.

Tatsuro IshizukaAn interesting development is that Japanese nuclear giant Hitachi told Kyodo News that the firm will keep to its goals for developing new nuclear reactor business in Asia despite fears the Fukushima crisis might deter some nations from going in this direction.

The business plan was drawn up prior to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The company says it sees no reason to change it.

Tatsuro Ishizuka, VP for Business Development, (right) told the news service July 20 that it hopes to get orders for 20 new reactors in Asia and the Middle East.

“We will give priorities to negotiations with India, Vietnam, the U.S., and other countries with growing energy demand,” he said.

In the Middle East Saudi Arabia is reported to be planning to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2030 with the first two operational by 2021. According to wire service reports, it plans to have 20% of its electricity come from nuclear reactors. Forgoing uranium enrichment to fuel them would help with the Middle East's volatile politics by preventing the massive nuclear new build from setting off an arms race with other countries.

Hitachi is also involved in the work to stabilize and eventually decommission the six reactors at Fukushima. Ishizuka told Kyodo News his firm is working to develop medium and long-term measures to stabilize the power station.

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Karl-Friedrich Lenz said...

I am afraid that Japan Times article (based on a Kyodo report) is not quite accurate. The Mongolians seem to be opposed to such a project:

djysrv said...

The Mongolians said the same thing last May, but here we are again. I'm just following the story where it takes me.