Japan’s plutonium glut: plan to make more raises red flag ascountry reassesses nuclear future

TOKYO – Last year’s tsunami crisis left Japan’s nuclear future in doubtand its reactors idled, rendering its huge stockpile of plutoniumuseless for now. So, the nuclear industry’s plan to produce evenmore this year has raised a red flag. Nuclear industry officials say they hope to start producing ahalf-ton of plutonium within months, in addition to the more than35 tons Japan already has stored around the world. That’s eventhough all the reactors that might use it are either inoperable oroffline while the country rethinks its nuclear policy after thetsunami-generated Fukushima crisis. “It’s crazy,” said Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel,a leading authority on nonproliferation issues and a formerassistant director for national security in the White House Officeof Science and Technology.

“There is absolutely no reason to dothat.” Japan’s nuclear industry produces plutonium — which isstrictly regulated globally because it also is used for nuclearweapons — by reprocessing some of its spent, uranium-basedfuel in a procedure that it hopes will help decrease the amount ofradioctive waste that otherwise would need long-term storage. The industry wants to step-up its reprocessing output to build upreserves in anticipation of when it has a network of reactors thatrun on a next-generation fuel that includes plutonium and that canbe reused in a self-contained cycle — but that much-delayedday is still far off. Japanese officials argue that, once those plans are in place, thereactors will draw down the stockpile and use up most of it by2030. “There is no excess plutonium in this country,” said KoichiImafuku, an official at the Agency for Natural Resources andEnergy.

“It’s not just lying around without purpose.” In the meantime, the country’s post-Fukushima review of nuclearpolicy is pitting a growing number of critics who want to turn awayfrom plutonium altogether against an entrenched nuclear industrythat wants to push forward with it. Other countries, including the United States, have scaled back theseparation of plutonium because it is a proliferation concern andis more expensive than other alternatives, including long-termstorage of spent fuel. Fuel reprocessing remains unreliable and it is questionable whetherit is a viable way of reducing Japan’s massive amounts of spentfuel rods, said Takeo Kikkawa, a Hitotsubashi University professorspecializing in energy issues. “Japan should abandon the program altogether,” said Hideyuki Ban,co-director of a respected anti-nuclear Citizens’ NuclearInformation Center. Huawei Wireless Router

“Then we can also contribute to the globaleffort for nuclear non-proliferation.” Von Hippel stressed that only two other countries reprocess on alarge scale: France and Britain, and Britain has decided to give itup. Japan’s civilian-use plutonium stockpile is already thefifth-largest in the world, and it has enough plutonium to makeabout 5,000 simple nuclear warheads, although it does notmanufacture them. Because of inherent dangers of plutonium stockpiles, governmentregulations require industry representatives to announce by March31 how much plutonium they intend to produce in the year ahead andexplain how they will use it. But, for the second year in a row, the industry has failed to doso. Huawei Mobile Hotspot

They blame the government for failing to come up with along-term policy after Fukushima, but say they nevertheless want tomake more plutonium if they can get a reprocessing plant going byOctober. Kimitake Yoshida, a spokesman for the Federation of Electric PowerCompanies, said the plutonium would be converted into MOX — amixture of plutonium and uranium — which can be loaded backinto reactors and reused in a cycle. But technical glitches, costoverruns and local opposition have kept Japan from actually puttingthe moving parts of that plan into action. In the meantime, Japan’s plutonium stockpile — most of whichis stored in France and Britain — has swelled despite Tokyo’spromise to international regulators not to produce a plutoniumsurplus. Its plutonium holdings have increased fivefold from about 7 tons in1993 to 37 tons at the end of 2010. Huawei Data Cards

Japan initially said thestockpile would shrink rapidly in early 2000s as its fuel cyclekicked in, but that hasn’t happened. Critics argue that since no additional spent fuel is being created,and there are questions about how the plutonium would be used, thisis not a good time start producing more. They also say it makes nosense for Japan to minimize its plutonium glut by calling it a”stockpile” rather than a “surplus.” “It’s a simple accounting trick,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicistwith the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s laughable.

And itsends the wrong signal all around the world.” Officials stress that, like other plutonium-holding nations, Japanfiles a yearly report detailing its stockpile with theInternational Atomic Energy Agency. But it has repeatedly failed tolive up to its own schedules for how the plutonium will be used. From 2006 until three years ago, the nuclear industry said theplutonium-consuming MOX fuel would be used in 16-18 conventionalreactors “in or after” 2010. In fact, only two reactors used MOXthat year.

By the time of the earthquake and tsunami last year, thenumber was still just three — including one at the Fukushimaplant. In response to the delays, the industry has simply revised itsplans farther off into the future. It is now shooting for the endof fiscal 2015. “There really is a credibility problem here,” said Princeton’s vonHippel, who also is a member of the independent International Panelon Fissile Materials.

“They keep making up these schedules whichare never realized. I think the ship is sinking beneath them.”.

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