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Japan: Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing plant fuels debate

Like many other small towns in Japan, the village of Rokkasho (六ヶ所村) in Aomori prefecture, situated in the north of Japan's main island Honshū and just south of its northernmost prefecture Hokkaido, hosts a nuclear facility. And like other nuclear facilities in Japan, while fueling the local economy, the plant's main function is not to generate energy for local inhabitants of Aomori but rather to power the country's larger urban centers, whose need for energy drives and maintains Japan's nuclear industry as a whole.

Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant

Rokkasho Nuclear Reprocessing Plant (from Wikipedia)

The nuclear facility at Rokkasho is different from others in Japan, however, in a critical respect: it is not, strictly speaking, a nuclear power plant. It is something very different, referred to as a reprocessing plant (再処理工場). Blogger charider37 explains:


A reprocessing plant is a plant that literally reprocesses spent nuclear fuel expelled from nuclear power stations so that it can be re-used as fuel.


The reprocessing technology for this spent nuclear fuel only exists nowhere in the world except in France and in Japan, and the idea of extracting energy from something that is essentially garbage is attracting a great deal of attention.


However, on the other hand there are many negatives as well, [for example] what should be done with the high-level radioactive waste that is emitted during reprocessing at the reprocessing plant. To begin with, how can something so dangerous even be treated, and so on and so on…


What is especially frightening is the radioactive material (material which emits radioactivity) that would be leaked in the remote chance of an accident. In this country of earthquakes in particular, there is honestly-speaking [a real chance] that the plant could be damaged.


In that case, what would we do… worse comes to worse, there is the fear that this could lead to a disaster like Chernobyl in Japan.

One of the convergence points for discussions of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant is a documentary film entitled Rokkasho Rhapsody, directed by Kamanaka Hitomi (鎌仲ひとみ) [ja] and reviewed in English by students at the University of Chicago “Popular Culture In/Out of Japan” blog here and here (and with its own blog).

Blogger charider37 continues the above entry with a reference to Rokkasho Rhapsody:


In all honesty, I am neither for or against this reprocessing plant.


[The reason I am not for or against it is that] I don't have enough knowledge about it. I am convinced when I listen to people who are for it, but I am also convinced when I listen to people who are against it.


Also, the concept of the director [of Rokkasho Rapsody] was that she wanted to “let many people know about [Rokkasho], putting aside the issue of being for or against it; to first of all spread [knowledge of] the word ‘reprocessing'”. In accordance with this [concept], I want to relate the thoughts and feelings I had during my trip [to Rokkasho].

No Nukes More Peace
Demonstration in Shibuya, March 16, 2008

Fears of the possible damage caused by the Rokkasho reprocessing plant to the local and global environment have sparked local fishermen, environmentalists, and other concerned citizens to mount various campaigns [ja] against the plant. Following on events held in earlier months, on March 16th protests took place in Shibuya [ja], Tokyo, and in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. Blogger, translator and singer Suzuki Satomi (鈴木里美) wrote in her blog about the Sendai event:


Today, I participated in an event that was held in Sendai to try to put a stop to the reprocessing facility for spent nuclear fuel in Aomori's Rokkasho village. Everybody watched a documentary film and listened to talks by people from various different specializations, and after that we went on a peace walk through the whole town of Sendai. I felt many things [while I was there], and I am still feeling them now. Discharging radioactivity is of course terrible! They say even though it will be drained into the sea, it will be watered down and even though it will be released into the air, it will be diffused; but I don't want any radioactivity at all to be emitted from this facility. Until this is possible, I don't want this [facility] to go into operation.

Sendai demo poster

Poster for event organized in Sendai (artwork by Saito Keisuke, original PDF file here)

Along with the intricate artwork of a flyer handed out at the Sendai event (above), a group called No Nukes More Hearts put together an assortment of creative designs on display at the Shibuya demonstration:

No Nukes More Hearts- Logo

No Nukes More Hearts, by Misao Redwolf

Good Choice Good Future

Good Choice Good Future, by Asa

No! Nukes!!

No! Nukes!!, by anonymous

Blogger Watase Yoshitaka (渡瀬義孝) meanwhile emphasizes the scale of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in this post:


This reprocessing problem is very significant for the future of Japan as it is something that cannot be undone.
A reprocessing plant is the biggest threat to the health and food safety of Japanese people.
This is a much bigger problem than that of contaminated food products from China.


In one day, the reprocessing plant emits as much radioactivity as a nuclear power plant emits in one year.
In other words, Rokkasho will produce as much radioactive contamination as would the operation of 365 nuclear power plants.


Furthermore, while in the case of nuclear power plants radioactivity emitted into the environment is regulated, for some reason in the case of reprocessing plants emissions are for the most part unregulated. Neither has there been any installation of a removal systems [for radioactive waste] which could be set up if money was spent on it.
As a result, large quantities of radioactivity flow from the chimney of the reprocessing plant into the atmosphere, and from the drainage into the sea.


The Sanriku Sea, one the most prominent fishing zones in the world, will certainly become polluted with radioactivity.
The radioactivity concentrated inside those famous Oma tuna, inside delicious fish and oysters, will creep onto our dining table.
In the area around La Hague in France, and around Sellafield in the U.K., the incidence rates of leukemia in children are far higher than the national average, and there is serious damage being caused to people's health.


However, the Japanese mass media is hardly covering this problem at all.
The reason is that they fear the pressure of their greatest sponsors, the power companies.
The limits of commercial media are obvious.

Video of the walk a group organized from Izumo to Rokkasho in 2007.

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