I've never heard of a nuclear operator volunteering bad information to a regulatory agency without being asked. Neither has NRA Chairman Tanaka, apparently.
It is almost unprecedented, says Chairman Tanaka, that a nuclear operator (in this case JAEA) has volunteered the information and alerted the regulatory authority (in this case NRA) of existence of hazard and risk at a nuclear facility (in this case Tokai Reprocessing Plant).
On July 31, Nuclear Regulatory Authority held its regular weekly meeting, which was netcast live (now archived at NRA's Youtube channel). Toward the end of the long meeting, Chairman Shunichi Tanaka asked the commissioners if they had any last thoughts and suggestions. Commissioner Fuketa raised his hand, and proceeded to tell the other commissioners and officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (secretariat of NRA) about a piece of information voluntarily submitted by Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA).
JAEA told NRA that there are large quantities of high-level liquid waste and plutonium in liquid form at its Tokai Reprocessing Plant in Ibaraki Prefecture and that they wanted to solidify them to make the facility safer. JAEA wanted to know how to proceed under the new standards, if applied.
A nuclear operator proactively (to save its skin maybe, but) addressing the safety issue and asking for direction - a small, first step toward the right direction?
This is what Commissioner Fuketa told the group (my summary, from the video of the meeting, after 1 hour and 45 minutes):
JAEA operates Tokai Reprocessing Plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, about 1/4 of the size of Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture. It became operational in 1981, and stopped operation to enter into a prolonged inspection/maintenance in 2007.
NRA is currently soliciting public comments on the new regulatory standards for nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, and as part of the process NRA conducted hearings from the nuclear operators for their opinions on the new regulatory standards. Instead, JAEA submitted the information that in addition to spent fuel assemblies there are large quantities of high-level radioactive liquid waste and liquid plutonium (plutonium nitrate) stored at Tokai Reprocessing Plant, and that they pose a hazard and JAEA wants to do something about it.
JAEA seems to have decided to volunteer the information before the new standards are enforced [later this year, I think]. JAEA says it wants to vitrify high-level radioactive liquid waste and solidify plutonium nitrate to make them safer, and the new regulatory standards should address this problem.
It is extremely rare that a nuclear operator readily disclose a hazard or risk at its facility. Nuclear Regulatory Authority/Agency should assess the situation and figure out what to do.
Existence of liquid waste and plutonium itself does not constitute a regulatory problem per se. But since the operator has volunteered the information of this risk, we should investigate, understand the situation and quantify the risk.
Then, to vitrify the liquid waste and solidify plutonium nitrate, we have to somehow bring Tokai Reprocessing Plant operational. Do we do that under the new regulatory standards? In order to figure out how we could do so and come up with the plan, Nuclear Regulatory Agency should investigate and find out the details of the situation.
There are 400m3 (cubic meter) of highly contaminated liquid waste, and 670 kilograms of plutonium nitrate (in liquid form) at the site. (699 kilogram to be exact, according to JAEA's website).
Chairman Tanaka expressed his concern that he had had about the liquid waste and liquid plutonium at Tokai, and said it was unprecedented that an operator volunteered such information. He reminded the group about the leak of high-level liquid waste in the US, and asked Nuclear Regulatory Agency to investigate. But he asked the Agency to do the operator hearing in public, as it concerned safety of the facility. The Agency chief agreed.
Then, Commissioner Kenzo Oshima, the only commissioner who is not scientist but a career bureaucrat at Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asked to comment. He went on to try to vilify JAEA for disclosing the information now that the new regulatory standards on nuclear reprocessing facilities are coming their way, and repeatedly raised the issue (it was the issue to him, apparently) of "abandoning high-level liquid waste at the site" and who should be held responsible (Ministry of Education, he mentioned).
The scientists of NRA looked puzzled. Finally, Commissioner Fuketa told Commissioner Oshima rather forcefully that it was not the matter of "abandoning" the waste, but since the processing was halted, the waste and plutonium were "work in progress", so to speak, and it was not the matter of who was responsible or who was to be punished. What would be needed was to understand the situation, and come up with the solution to the problem. Commissioner Fuketa was effectively saying it was not about punishing JAEA for volunteering the information.
Commissioner Oshima is the one who declared in early July that they would restart some reactors in one year's time.
As a non-scientist, Commissioner Oshima cannot participate in the examination of the applications from nuclear power plant operators, and in the meeting he sounded frustrated, being among no-nonsense scientists who so far do not play much politics.
It made me wonder what kind of dialog TEPCO (or any nuclear power plant operators) and NISA, previous regulatory body now abolished, used to have. I have a feeling that TEPCO never volunteered a bad piece of information about their nuke plants, and NISA didn't want to hear either.