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Japan, U.S. negotiating construction of nuclear waste facility in Mongolia

Abandoned quarters built by the former Soviet Army stand in the Mongolian village of Bayantal, the most likely site for the construction of a nuclear power plant. (Mainichi)
Abandoned quarters built by the former Soviet Army stand in the Mongolian village of Bayantal, the most likely site for the construction of a nuclear power plant. (Mainichi)

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia -- Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the U.S. Department of Energy have secretly been advancing plans to construct the world's first international storage and disposal facility for spent nuclear fuel in Mongolia, it has been learned.

The deal would enable Japan and the U.S., which lack disposal sites of their own, to counter efforts by Russia and France to market nuclear technology internationally by selling reactors and the disposal of nuclear waste services together as a set. Parties involved in negotiations acknowledged the secret plans when interviewed by the Mainichi.

In return for the deal, Mongolia would receive nuclear power technology from Japan and the U.S. However, the nuclear crisis sparked by the earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant has pressured the Japanese government to rethink its nuclear power policies, and the move to burden a third party with the task of disposing of nuclear waste is likely to draw criticism.

Sources familiar with the plans said negotiations started in late September last year at the initiative of U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman. Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade handled talks, which were facilitated by the fact that there are no immediate prospects of Japan or the U.S. being able to settle on nuclear waste disposal sites of their own and Mongolia wants technological support to construct nuclear fuel processing plants and nuclear fuel storage facilities.

Nuclear power generation, which emits little carbon dioxide, is seen as being effective in battling climate change. And the marketing of nuclear plants is big business -- a single reactor sells for hundreds of billions of yen. The Japanese government regards the overseas sale of nuclear power plants as a pillar of the nations' growth strategy. It has already tied a deal with Vietnam and is in negotiations with India and Turkey. However, Russia and other countries have gone a step ahead by marketing their reactors and the collection of spent nuclear fuel together as a set, which has put Japan and the U.S. on the back foot.

Japan entrusts the reprocessing of its nuclear fuel to Britain and France. It is working on constructing nuclear reprocessing facilities in the Aomori Prefecture village of Rokkasho, and the village has facilities to temporarily store high-level radioactive waste, but it remains very difficult for the nation to accept spent nuclear fuel from other countries. As the situation stands, the nation's plans to decide on a final disposal site within Japan by 2035 are likely to prove difficult to achieve.

The U.S. has also struggled with the issue. In 2002 the administration of former President George W. Bush decided on Nevada as a final disposal site, but in 2009 the administration of President Barack Obama suspended the plans in response to local opposition and the problem has been left up in the air.

To make up for their weakness of not being able to receive spent fuel, Japan and the U.S. agreed on the idea of building a storage and disposal facility in Mongolia, which lies on solid ground. The facility would be built several hundred meters below the ground.

The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry believes that by materializing the plan, it could support the international nuclear power business of companies such as Toshiba and Hitatchi, which build nuclear reactors.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that Mongolia may have more than 1.5 million tons of uranium deposits, and if these are developed, the country could rank among the world's top three suppliers of uranium. By promoting the deal with Mongolia, Japan and the U.S. hope to secure a stable supply of uranium.

Nuclear waste can be transported internationally if countries through which the fuel is transported and the countries receiving the fuel give their consent, and if methods set by the IAEA and other relevant parties are followed. Negotiations on building the facilities were kept secret as it was feared that if the plans came to light at the negotiation stage, then China and Russia -- countries through which the fuel could pass -- might interfere and protests could erupt from Mongolian residents.

In February this year, the three countries were due to sign a comprehensive diplomatic agreement in Washington, but the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which learned of the project shortly beforehand, argued that governmental debate over the project had been insufficient. As a result the signing was put off. After that Japan was struck by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and a date for signing the deal has not yet been determined.

Japan's nuclear power plant policies have come under scrutiny since the March 11 disaster, but even if all nuclear power plants in the country were decommissioned, a disposal facility would still be necessary. However, the idea of providing technical support to a third country in return for it accepting nuclear waste could be criticized as an approach similar to Japan's past promotion of the construction of nuclear power plants in Fukushima in return for local funding.

(Mainichi Japan) May 9, 2011

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