TOKYO -- The Japanese company building a reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel pushed back the planned completion date by another three years Friday, further clouding prospects for realizing the nuclear fuel cycle sought by the energy-poor country.
Japan Nuclear Fuel said it now expects to finish the facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, in the first half of fiscal 2021, citing problems with aging equipment that forced the suspension of safety checks by the Nuclear Regulation Authority. The deadline has been postponed 23 times from the original target of 1997.
Executive President Kenji Kudo apologized Friday to Aomori Vice Gov. Ikuo Sasaki and said his company would work as one to follow the new timetable at all costs.
Sasaki warned that the series of problems at the plant, stemming from age-related deterioration and insufficient inspections, "could cause residents to lose trust in the facility's safety."
The reprocessing plant is meant to extract uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for reuse in reactors, making it a key link in the envisioned nuclear fuel cycle. Work on the Rokkasho facility began in 1993, but it has sat idle for more than two decades, and many parts are deteriorating with age. Rainwater leaked into a building housing an emergency power supply, and corrosion ate holes in exhaust pipes at a uranium enrichment facility.
The cost of the Rokkasho plant, including operating expenses, has climbed to 13.9 trillion yen ($122 billion), and repair costs may push the total even higher. The necessary funds are provided by the big power companies that are Japan Nuclear Fuel's main shareholders, feeding growing criticism that the burden falls indirectly on consumers.
The government decided last year to scrap the Monju experimental fast-breeder nuclear reactor, another part of the fuel-cycle plan.
Kudo acknowledged the excessive number of delays and said he would accept the criticism levied at his company. "We want to complete [the facility] at the earliest possible date," he said.
But it remains unclear whether three additional years will be enough to bring the plant in line with tough new standards imposed after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.