Safeguards for Reprocessing: The Rokkasho Experience

by Susan Cohen

Do women experience any unique challenges working for the IAEA? Or in Japan? What is safeguards by design (SBD) and how was it introduced into the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant? What was the international concern over the building of a commercial scale reprocessing plant in a non-nuclear-weapon State?

Shirley Johnson has spent most of her career working in international nuclear safeguards. She began as a nuclear chemist at the US Hanford Nuclear Site working on the separations processes needed to extract plutonium from irradiated fuel rods. After 11 years, she moved to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory and worked on the Three Mile Island characterization while waiting for an appointment to the IAEA, where she became an inspector in 1982. During her 25 years at the IAEA, Shirley developed expertise in reprocessing safeguards and design information verification. After retiring from the IAEA, she went to Princeton University to write a reference report on verification approaches for the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). Later, she established Tucker Creek Consulting, which provides expert advice on nuclear material safeguards and disarmament issues. Susan Cohen asks Shirley Johnson about her work.

Susan Cohen: How did your early life in Montana influence your later career?

Shirley Johnson: I grew up in a large family on a cattle ranch in the mountains. We attended a one-room school about 10 kilometers away — quite hard to get to in winter. I was almost always the only one in my class and I always knew that I’d become a scientist. Working on a ranch, you develop independence, determination and perseverance. Later, I had to learn how to be a team player. From the one-room school, I went to a girls’ high school and then to Gonzaga University, where I majored in chemistry. Once employed at Hanford lab, I found that I’d been hired as a lab technician and paid less than the men with the same degree, who were hired as chemists. It took a year and much perseverance for me to be promoted to chemist.

SC: What led to your applying for work at the IAEA in Vienna?

SJ: In the 1970s, a couple of my colleagues at the Hanford site were appointed to the IAEA as inspectors, which caught my interest, so I applied but was not accepted. Then I moved to the Idaho Nuclear Engineering Lab to work on the Three Mile Island recovery effort. Still interested in working in Vienna, I flew there and was interviewed by senior safeguards staff, and hired.

SC: Did your reprocessing background help you get the job?

SJ: Yes, as a chemist at the Hanford lab, I was supporting the solvent extraction systems for the plutonium recovery plant. Not many countries do reprocessing so the IAEA made use of my experience and I developed reprocessing safeguards approaches.

SC: What was your IAEA path to working in Japan and in reprocessing safeguards? 

SJ: I joined the IAEA in 1982. After the one-year inspector training course —ICAS — I started inspecting at the WAK reprocessing plant in Karlsruhe, Germany, which was a good beginning. However, I still wanted to go to the big reprocessing plants in Japan so, finally, in 1987 I was sent to the Tokai reprocessing plant. Then, the Japanese Government notified the IAEA that they were intending to build a commercial-size reprocessing plant at Rokkasho (RRP), using a French design similar to that for La Hague.

SC: What actions did the Japanese Government and facility operator take to assist the IAEA in developing a safeguards approach for the RRP.

SJ: The Japanese — and the rest of the world — were aware that IAEA had never implemented safeguards at such a large, complex reprocessing facility, which would mean tons of separated plutonium on the inventory and a potential for misuse. Responding to these political sensitivities, the Japanese immediately established an international forum called LASCAR, comprising technology-holding States, the European safeguards community and the IAEA (and Australia, as a neighbour). LASCAR produced suggestions, which the Japanese Government, the operator and the IAEA kept in mind when developing the safeguards approach. Also, the Japanese sent cost-free experts (CFEs) with the relevant expertise to the IAEA. The CFEs, became an integral part of the IAEA team and functioned as a liaison with the Japanese operators and authorities.  Also, the Japanese Government financed about 60% of the RRP safeguards project, paying for instrumentation and installations. We set up trilateral discussions between the USA, Japan and the IAEA, which made everything move much faster.

SC: The RRP was shut down for upgrades after the 2011 earthquake and so had not started routine operation. Do you feel that it will actually begin to operate in the near future?

SJ: It was not damaged by the earthquake or the tsunami. Government regulations for spent fuel ponds and piping were enhanced. As well as undertaking these upgrades, they had shut down all the reactors so there was no need to recycle plutonium into new fuel. However, the RRP — a $31 billion construction project —was kept active and continued testing and development work, upgrading and replacing equipment, and safeguards work continued.

The big question is — what’s going to happen with the Japanese mixed-oxide fuel fabrication plant (JMOX)? It’s right next door. Without a fuel fabrication plant, there’s no need to separate plutonium. Plutonium would build up, and the international community would not be happy about it. Construction restarted on JMOX in 2022, so there’s a good chance that Rokkasho will operate. Meanwhile, post-quake nuclear concerns have subsided and a number of power reactors have gone back into operation. Reauthorization is required to use MOX fuel (containing plutonium). As Japan has no natural resources, fuel recycling is a good option. I’m optimistic that RRP could be operating by 2025–2026.

SC: How is safeguards by design (SBD) applied when a new facility is being constructed?

SJ: With new reactor designs, SBD is coming to the forefront. Rokkasho was the first facility where we could introduce SBD and, once again, the Japanese Government and the operator cooperated, helping us to develop an effective, efficient safeguards approach. Because they had used the French design, it was pretty much cast in stone. However, we saw that we’d need on-line monitoring systems to measure volume, flow, and concentration and these had to be built into the plant; they couldn’t be retrofitted. The huge volume of monitoring data feeds into a centralized IAEA-developed computer system, replacing 4–5 inspectors during full operation.

SC: Looking back, what was your greatest personal challenge?

SJ: Being a woman — in the 70s in the US, in the 80s in Vienna, and in the 90s in Japan — was a challenge. For example, in Japan, women were not permitted to work on night shifts and we inspectors had three shifts over 24-hours. They eventually adapted to women inspectors being in facilities at night. My Japanese counterparts had very little experience working with women and so they didn’t know how to negotiate with me. This changed by the early 2000s, enabling a good working relationship.

SC: When you retired from the IAEA, what was your next step?

SJ: I returned to the ranch in Montana after finishing my work at Princeton University. Then I formed a consulting company to do contract work, primarily with the US national labs. Much of this work focuses on IAEA and international safeguards — reviewing new instrumentation, policies, and possible new safeguards approaches (e.g. for SMRs) — making use of my expertise.

SC: What are your future plans

SJ: Continuing to mentor young scientists is important. It’s a way to transfer and preserve nuclear knowledge. Also, since leaving the IAEA, I’ve been involved in recorded documentation such as the Oral History of the IAEA by the University of Vienna.


Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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