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Plutonium & Japan

Nuclear Watch: Concerns over the growing amount of plutonium (Pt. 61)

January 8, 2016 (Mainichi J



Japan has declared repeatedly since the 1990s that it will never possess surplus plutonium. While the plan to develop fast-breeder reactors has been deadlocked, Japan plans to use mixed-oxide fuel consisting of plutonium blended with natural uranium in light-water reactors in order to spend plutonium, which has been produced by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel in Britain and France. The government had intended to use such fuel at 16 to 18 nuclear reactors across Japan by 2010.

However, the plan collapsed following the March 2011 outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Shunsuke Kondo, 73, who served as chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) until March 2014, had described accumulated plutonium in Japan as "plutonium in stock" instead of "surplus plutonium," on the assumption that the material would be used for MOX fuel even after the outbreak of the nuclear disaster.

However, Japan became unable to consume plutonium even if the country wanted to. As such, the stockpile of plutonium in Japan has snowballed to 47.8 metric tons.

Nobuyasu Abe, 70, a member of the AEC, says, "Now, nobody knows how much plutonium Japan will use in the future."

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) is currently examining 26 reactors for which applications for permission to restart have been filed, but it is expected to take a considerable amount of time before the NRA determines if these reactors meet the new safety regulations.

Even if many of these reactors are to be reactivated, there are no prospects that MOX fuel can be used for them because it is necessary to gain consent from local communities.

Abe compares this situation to "an equation with a large variable number," and says, "For now, the only choice is to maintain the policy of not increasing the amount of plutonium Japan stockpiles."

The current Japan-U.S. agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, which went into force in 1988, expires in July 2018. Since the accord includes clauses that allow Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and enrich uranium, the pact needs to be extended if Japan is to continue its nuclear fuel cycle project. Like the bilateral security treaty, however, the nuclear energy pact can be automatically extended.

A senior Foreign Ministry official says, "The two countries intend to extend the accord."

Since the U.S. nuclear energy industry has close relations with its counterpart in Japan, the United States will likely benefit from extending the pact.

However, concern remains as to the moves of U.S. Congress. "China and South Korea are lobbying U.S. Congress in launching a negative campaign (against Japan's stockpile of plutonium)," says former Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, 74.

China criticized Japan's policy regarding plutonium during a meeting of the First Committee of the U.N. General Assembly in October 2015. South Korea, which the United States does not allow to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, criticizes the situation as unequal. China and South Korea could intensify their criticism of Japan. (By Haruyuki Aikawa, Senior Writer)

(Next installment to be published on Jan. 11)

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