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information about Fukushima published in English in Japanese media info publiée en anglais dans la presse japonaise

Plutonium: Between the devil and the deep blue sea

December 1, 2016


Japan unable to scrap recycling program due to plutonium stocks




Japan is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to pressing ahead with its dream of a perpetual energy source through nuclear fuel recycling.

Having poured hundreds of billions of yen into the failed Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor project, it is belatedly considering decommissioning the facility. But it is still left with a huge stockpile of plutonium, and no way of reducing the amount in the coming years.

Having come this far, Japan is simply not able to abandon the problem-plagued, money-guzzling technology, hence its Nov. 30 plan to build a demonstration fast reactor to replace Monju.

Unlike Monju, which uses and generates plutonium, a fast reactor only burns plutonium.

“If Japan abandoned its nuclear fuel recycling policy, it would be like opening ‘Pandora’s box,’” said a senior official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nation’s nuclear energy policy, referring to the new fast reactor program. “A project illustrating Japan’s intent to continue the development of a fast reactor serves as the seal of approval.”

The government's committee for fast reactor development, which is headed by industry minister Hiroshige Seko, said it expects to have the development regime in place in 2018. The following 10 years would be given over to scientists to work on the basic design of the fast reactor.

A demonstration reactor is one stage closer to a commercial reactor compared with a prototype reactor such as Monju.

Nuclear fuel recycling uses plutonium recovered from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel generated at nuclear power plants.

Monju in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, also uses plutonium as fuel. Or rather, it was supposed to. The project has come under intense criticism because it has hardly operated since it achieved criticality more than 20 years ago. The government has poured about 1 trillion yen ($8.9 billion) into Monju.

If Japan pulled the plug on the development of a fast reactor, it would jeopardize the nuclear fuel recycling program and create new problems that the government has adroitly avoided dealing with to date.

For one, all spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants across the country would suddenly just become “waste.”

As a result, the government would have no compelling reason to justify the storage of nuclear fuel waste at the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. The plant has yet to be completed although it was initially expected to be finished in 1997.

The government has been unable to decide where nuclear waste should be placed for permanent disposal since no municipalities in Japan want such facilities in their backyards.

And then there is the issue of Japan's stockpile of 48 tons of plutonium and being able to offer assurances to the international community that this country poses no threat to others.

The stockpile is sufficient to produce 6,000 atomic weapons.

If Japan retains the plutonium stockpile with no plan to use it in the near future after it abandons the development of a fast reactor, it could fuel international concerns that Japan may have nuclear ambitions.

The agreement between Japan and the United States concerning the civil use of atomic energy will expire in July 2018.

The pact allows Japan to recover plutonium from spent nuclear fuel on the condition that the country will not use plutonium to manufacture nuclear weapons.

If Japan holds on to the reprocessing program while scrapping the project to develop a fast reactor, it will be left with an ever-growing stockpile of plutonium.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that it could have ramifications on the revision of the agreement,” said a senior official at the Foreign Ministry with regard to the plutonium issue.

Tatsujiro Suzuki, a professor of nuclear energy at Nagasaki University and former vice chairman of the government’s Nuclear Energy Commission, expressed skepticism about taking on a new fast reactor project when scientists could elicit few tangible results about performance and operational safety from Monju.

With the government set to undertake a new reactor project, Japan is also banking on joining France’s ASTRID program to access a range of data on the operation of a demonstration fast reactor. This refers to the Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration.

But it is still unclear even whether the ASTRID program will ever go ahead.

“If we engaged in discussions with little transparency, the international community would come to harbor doubts about Japan’s intention concerning plutonium and lose confidence in Japan,” Suzuki said.


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