TOKYO (Reuters) - On a hillside in northern Japan, wind turbines slice through the cold air, mocking efforts at a nearby industrial complex to shore up the future of the demoralized nuclear power industry.
The wind-power farm at Rokkasho has sprung up close to Japan's first nuclear reprocessing plant, a Lego-like complex of windowless buildings and steel towers, which was supposed to have started up 15 years ago but is only now nearing completion.
Dogged by persistent technical problems, it is designed to recycle spent nuclear fuel and partly address a glaring weakness in Japan's bid to restore confidence in the industry, shredded last year when a quake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi power station to the south, triggering radioactive leaks and mass evacuations.
But the Rokkasho project is too little, too late, according to critics who say Japan is running so short of nuclear-waste storage that the entire industry risks shutdown within the next two decades unless a solution is found.
"You don't build a house without a toilet," said Jitsuro Terashima, president of the Japan Research Institute think tank and member of an expert panel advising the national government on energy policy after the Fukushima disaster.
"If Japan seriously wants to stick to nuclear power, a second Rokkasho would be needed," he said.
Long-term storage of highly radioactive waste is a problem common to all nuclear-powered nations, including the United States, but experts say Japan's unstable geology and densely populated terrain mean that its challenges are far bigger.
The Rokkasho plant is due to finally start up in October, barely 19 months after the radioactive clouds at Fukushima sparked the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years -- a crisis exacerbated by the 1,800 tonnes of spent nuclear-fuel rods being stored at the power station when the disaster struck.
As Japan approaches the anniversary of the March 11 quake, the nuclear power industry, which just over a year ago supplied a third of its power, is virtually paralyzed. All but two of the country's 54 reactors are offline.
The reactors have steadily been shut down for maintenance, unable to restart until they meet new stress tests that aim to determine if power stations in the future can withstand the kind of terrifying natural force unleashed on Fukushima: a magnitude 9 quake and a wall of water more than 10 metres (30 ft) high.
Effectively, though, the utilities have to do more than pass stress tests; they have to finally convince local governments that the waste problems will be resolved, not continue to mount up inside power plants lined up along the Japanese coast like radioactive warehouses, exposed to the risk of tsunamis.
At Fukushima, where highly radioactive spent fuel rods were crammed mostly into pools of water inside the complex, the disaster knocked out the cooling system and led to a fire in one of the pools. At the time, it was a bigger concern than even the risk of a reactor meltdown.
The governor of Ehime prefecture, Tokihiro Nakamura, who supports nuclear power provided that safety is ensured, says it is time to finally tackle the waste issue, including the option of not only reprocessing but storing it deep underground.
He blames successive national governments for failing to take the hard decisions.
"It's a traditional theme," he said. "It's a history of their fleeing from the risk of losing an election."
Rokkasho would consume 80 percent of Japan's spent fuel, assuming Tokyo decides to return to pre-disaster levels of nuclear power generation.
But the waste problem is now so acute that experts say the facility will only buy Japan an additional five to 10 years before it has to implement more lasting but politically sensitive solutions, such as permanent burial.
If Japan fails to find a solution to its waste-fuel problem, the entire nuclear power industry could one day grind to a halt.
"Even if the Rokkasho plant becomes operational, we cannot help but meet the deadline (for storage space to run out) in 15 to 20 years, just a little longer than about 10 years without it," said Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center and also a member of a government panel studying the nuclear fuel cycle.
"We think there is an 80 to 90 percent chance of the plant being a failure," he adds.
Rokkasho's record is not encouraging.
Some experts expect further delays there, pointing to long-standing problems at its kiln, an essential part of the plant that deals with high-level, liquid radioactive waste that cannot be recycled into fuel. The kiln turns waste into glass, a more stable substance that is then intended to be stored underground.
The plant's operator, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd (JNFL), has had to make some minor design changes to the kiln, which is larger than industry-standard kilns developed and used in France. JNFL had opted for a larger kiln to cut costs.
Ultimately though, even if Rokkasho gets up and running, two problems remain: it alone cannot recycle enough fuel to stop the waste mounting up, and there is still the issue of burying the vitrified waste permanently in a crowded, quake-prone country.
"When the (safety and political) conditions are met and some reactors are restarted ... we still have another high hurdle to clear. That is storage of spent fuel running out," said Ryutaro Kono, chief economist at BNP Paribas Securities and also a member of the government advisory panel.
With the aim of recycling more spent fuel, Japan had planned to separate plutonium at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant and combine it with uranium to produce mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. JNFL plans to build a MOX-fuel facility close to the reprocessing plant, with a scheduled launch date of 2016.
This would in turn lessen the need for imported uranium.
But this idea, along with Japan's entire energy policy, is under review after the disaster at Fukushima. The ruined station had used MOX fuel, which raised grave concerns for human health because of the presence of dangerous plutonium isotopes.
A DECENT BURIAL
With Japan's recycling efforts running so far behind the required pace to deal with the waste problem, Japan needs to find another resting place for its waste, away from nuclear power plants, which are typically located on the coast.
But unlike France and the United States, the world's biggest atomic power generators, Japan does not have much in the way of geologically stable and empty landscapes in which to bury nuclear waste for centuries. Given its population density is 10 times higher than the United States and almost three times higher than France, Japan faces a "not in my backyard" problem like no other big nuclear-power nation.
It certainly has nothing like the deserts of Nevada, where Washington had been developing a burial chamber deep inside a mountain before shelving the project in 2010, partly due to local opposition. The United States also stores its waste at power stations nationwide and it too is being urged to quickly find a new burial site in light of the Fukushima crisis.
Japan has yet another peculiar challenge: the government has delegated the task of dealing with waste to the private sector, so there is no central decision-maker, only regulators -- unlike France and the United States whose nuclear-weapons capability mean that state bodies call the shots.
Even large dry-cask storage facilities, used in Europe and the United States as a more secure form of interim storage than cooling pools, are still non-existent in Japan.
A joint venture between Tokyo Electric Power, operator of the crippled Fukushima plant, and Japan Atomic plans to build Japan's first large dry-cask storage facility in Mutsu, north of Rokkasho, where 3,000 tonnes of spent fuel would be encased in metal and stored on an interim basis.
But that project would be dedicated only to Tokyo Electric and Japan Atomic rather than all nuclear utilities, and it is also delayed, with commercial operation set to begin in October next year, 15 months behind schedule.
Its capacity would be equal to three times the annual amount of Japan's nuclear waste production, assuming Tokyo returns to pre-Fukushima levels of atomic power generation. In total, Japan's 17 nuclear stations have room left for six years of waste, almost all of that storage only available in spent-fuel pools.
The Mutsu storage facility is planned to hold waste for about 50 years before it is removed for recycling and vitrification. By that time, it is envisaged that a second reprocessing plant would be up and running at Rokkasho, although its location and other details have yet to be decided.
In the meantime, to prevent spent-fuel pools at the power stations from becoming over-crowded, some reactors have already started using MOX fuel, reprocessed in France and Britain from waste fuel shipped overseas by Japanese utilities.
MASSIVE POWER BILL
Japan's recycling policy is not only behind schedule, it is very expensive: according to official estimates, it would cost a staggering 19 trillion yen ($245 billion) to re-use waste reprocessed at Rokkasho over 40 years. Recycling all waste fuel would cost 2 yen per kilowatt hour in 2030, twice as much as just burying it at a final repository.
"Why does the government stick to the very costly recycle policy? That is because if they give it up, they should explain where a final repository will be located," said BNP's Kono.
Even Aomori prefecture, where the Rokkasho plant is located, has said it does not want to be the site of a final repository, with its governor making clear that his remote, relatively poor prefecture was already doing enough for Japan's energy security.
"Our position is clear that Aomori would not host a final repository," Governor Shingo Mimura told reporters this month.
The search for a final resting place has been entrusted to a private company, the Nuclear Waste Management Organisation of Japan (NUMO), rather than the government itself -- in keeping with Japan's private-sector approach to an industry that serves a civilian purpose only.
But NUMO, which is backed by funds provided by utilities, has not yet found a town willing to host it.
Responding to criticism, Makoto Yagi, head of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, told a government panel this month that utilities were trying to secure more spent fuel storage space even though the existing space would not be filled up in the immediate future.
"In addition to Rokkasho, companies individually take measures even though the space will not run out in the immediate future," said Yagi, who is also president of Kansai Electric Power. He added that the latest halt to tests at the Rokkasho plant was meant to ensure its smooth commercial launch.
At Rokkasho, a glance at the plant's own temporary storage pool for spent fuel shows the gravity of the problem that looms larger for the future of Japan's nuclear industry than just hoping some reactors will be back on line this summer.
The pool at Rokkasho is already 95 percent full of spent rods, which have been sent there over the years from across the country in anticipation of its long-awaited start-up.
Harukuni Tanaka, a JNFL director, said recently that it would take another two to three years before the pool reached its capacity, based on the plans of its customers, all of which are Japan's 10 nuclear power generators.
As the wind turbines spin nearby, offering a glimpse of a clean-energy future that is still decades away, Japan's nuclear industry is praying for Rokkasho to buy it more time.
(Additional reporting by Shinichi Saoshiro and Linda Sieg:; Editing by Mark Bendeich)