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CONTACT: Paul Leventhal (Japan)
Sharon Tanzer (Washington), 202-822-8444


Aomori, Japan---Warning that the 28 steel canisters containing highly radioactive waste in nearby Rokkasho Village may be corroding and subject to leakage in the future, representatives of the independent, Washington D.C.-based Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) today called upon Aomori Prefectural Governor Morio Kimura to refuse any further imports of the deadly waste until questions raised in an NCI safety analysis have been answered by Japanese nuclear industry and government officials.

NCI President Paul Leventhal and Scientific Director Edwin Lyman were to present the Institute's findings in a meeting with Governor Kimura and his staff today and to present them at a Public Forum on High Level Nuclear Waste and Reprocessing in Aomori City tomorrow. The forum was convened by the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Issues Group (Kakunen Mondai Kenkyakai), an advisory body made up of local civic leaders and prefectural assembly and national Diet members. The KMK forum was to be held following a visit to the Rokkasho waste storage site and meetings with officials of Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL) by Leventhal and Lyman, accompanied by former Diet member Haremasa Seki.

In a paper prepared by Lyman, a PhD nuclear physicist, the Nuclear Control Institute found a number of serious technical flaws in a report released March 22 by the Expert Advisory Committee to the Aomori Government. Finding that the report "raises more questions than it answers," Dr. Lyman asserted that "the inadequacy of the official response to the outstanding questions shows clearly that the two criteria of safety assurance and openness of information have still not been met for the return to Japan of vitrified high level waste (VHLW) produced overseas, and provides a sound basis for the Aomori governor to refuse any further importation of VHLW to the prefecture until they have been answered."

Lyman noted that the Expert Advisory Committee now concedes a finding made earlier by the Nuclear Control Institute---namely that the type of stainless steel chosen by the French to package Japanese waste had "sensitized" at the time the molten, highly radioactive glass mixture was poured into the steel canisters---a fact that Japanese and French officials refused to acknowledge at first.

But, Lyman found, the committee report still refuses to concede that the weakened, sensitized steel is subject to the extreme, corrosive effects of volatile radioactive compounds inside the canisters and marine salts on the surface of the canisters. Such corrosion will make the canisters vulnerable to leakage of radioactive cesium gas and other dangerous substances during normal storage and to catastrophic releases in the event of a severe accident such as an earthquake, tsunami, or the crash of a plane into the facility from a nearby air force base. The threat of leakage will increase if the waste canisters are stored for longer than the official 50-year interim period, as expected, Lyman found.

Lyman presented a detailed, technical critique of the specific findings of the safety committee to support his conclusions that the French had made the wrong choice of steel for packaging Japanese wastes and that Japanese officials were wrong in ruling out the possibility of a leak from one of the casks when abnormal radioactivity was found during routine testing last summer.

His primary technical conclusion "is that sensitization of the VHLW canisters is a wholly undesirable and completely avoidable occurrence . . . (and) Japanese authorities should not allow any more sensitized VHLW canisters to enter Japan." Instead, they should insist on the use of an alloy of steel that is available and is "fully resistant to sensitization," Lyman recommended.

Lyman called on JNFL and the Science and Technology Agency (STA) to agree to a "broader, peer-reviewed investigation" that includes cutting open a number of canisters to determine whether "accelerated corrosion resulting from sensitization is taking place." JNFL's "continuing refusal to address the sensitization issue in a constructive way is in direct contradiction with the safety agreement it concluded with Aomori Prefecture," he found, and provides a basis for the Aomori Governor to refuse further waste shipments from France or Britain until such an independent investigation is completed and the integrity of the canisters is demonstrated.

Leventhal, in his presentation, said the waste problem at Rokkasho was a further demonstration of the dangers associated with Japan's commercial plutonium program, from which the vitrified wastes are derived. He said failure to fully investigate the evidence of corrosion and leakage could further undermine public acceptance of Japan's nuclear program following the attempt by the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC) to cover up the severity of the Monju breeder reactor accident in December.

In a related matter, he called on PNC to make public the results of a clean-out inspection of its plutonium fuel fabrication plant in Tokai Village, now being undertaken at the insistence of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to ensure that all of the weapons-usable plutonium is accounted for at the plant. PNC agreed to the special inspection only after the Nuclear Control Institute had learned of a 70-kilogram discrepancy at the plant and made it public.

"PNC should not be allowed to use the IAEA's 'safeguards confidentiality' as a curtain to hide the results," Leventhal said. "The Japanese Government is free to voluntarily make the results public in the interest of demonstrating the effectiveness (or acknowledging the limitations) of safeguards, and that is precisely what the Japanese people and their elected prefectural and national representatives should demand."

Following their visit to Aomori Prefecture, Leventhal and Lyman will attend the annual conference of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum in Nagoya. The Nuclear Control Institute is an independent, non-partisan, research center on nuclear proliferation problems, including the use of plutonium, an atom bomb material, as a fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.

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