Fukushima accident has ripple effect in worldwide nuclear industry

November 26, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

The Fukushima nuclear crisis is creating business opportunities for Britain’s nuclear industry, helping Germany shutter its nuclear reactors and leaving questions over the future of Japan's nuclear fuel recycling ambitions.

Britain is awash in plutonium, some 120 tons, due in part to the nuclear crisis spawned by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The country now sees the opportunity to make money in storing unused plutonium.

Due to the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the Japanese power companies with nuclear reactors that used mixed oxide (MOX) fuels consisting of a mixture of reprocessed plutonium and uranium suspended their operations. That, in turn, forced the closure of the British factory that manufactured the fuel in August 2011.

Given that Japanese electric power companies were its largest customers, that created a backlog of stored plutonium.

At present, more than 260 tons of plutonium is stored globally. Of that, 120 tons were located in Britain as of the end of 2012. Of that amount, 96 tons came from British nuclear facilities, with the remaining 24 tons coming from other countries, including 17 tons from Japan. No nuclear plants in Britain currently use MOX fuels.

CONVERSION TO STORAGE BUSINESS

As many as 1,300 nuclear related facilities, both military and non-military, make up the six-square-kilometer Sellafield nuclear complex in northwestern Britain. One of the core facilities at the complex is the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP), which extracts plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.

THORP is scheduled to end operations in 2018 when it completes reprocessing of all of the spent nuclear fuel on hand. As a result, nearly 140 tons of plutonium will need to be stored in Britain.

In 2012, the British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which manages plutonium storage, constructed a plutonium repository, the size of a soccer field, next to THORP.

The windowless 30-meter-high facility, designed for long-term storage, is surrounded by thick walls and fences to protect the plutonium inside from terrorists.

The new facility is expected to target Japanese companies for future business given that most of the overseas plutonium in Britain already comes from the Asian nation. Japan also stores 17.9 tons of plutonium in France and another 9.3 tons back home.

Japan is also building its reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, which is expected to produce seven additional tons of plutonium a year. That surplus will need to be stored somewhere until Japan’s nuclear plants go back online, if they clear tougher government safety regulations and are allowed to do so.

An official of the British government, who is involved in the new business, said that Britain is very interested in Japan’s surplus plutonium.

Next to the THORP plant also stands the factory that manufactured MOX fuels before it closed. That factory was behind the 1999 quality falsification scandal on fuel that was to be used in the Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. The factory has since been renovated.

GERMANY THINKS OUTSIDE THE BOX

After the Fukushima nuclear accident, Germany decided to decommission all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. Until then, it still has more than five tons of plutonium in Britain in the form of powder that it intended to turn into MOX fuel.

Germany hit upon the idea of a “swap.” It suggested exchanging its plutonium in Britain with plutonium from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, stored in France that could then be turned into MOX fuel at the factory in Marcoule. It also meant the plutonium had to travel shorter distances and was more easily secured.

In April this year, a German electric power company and TEPCO agreed to exchange 650 kilograms of plutonium stored in Britain with the same amount stored in France. Germany made similar swaps with other countries of its remaining plutonium in Britain. Britain also was paid to accept what was left.

The plutonium exchange was convenient for TEPCO as well. It is still uncertain when, or if, the utility can restart its idled nuclear reactors. Therefore, even if it processes the plutonium into MOX fuels in France and then transports them back to Japan, they still have the problem of storage until they can be used.

According to internal German government documents, Germany will process its plutonium into 164 MOX fuel assemblies for use in nuclear reactors. It expects to use all the assemblies by 2016, six years earlier than scheduled and achieve its goal of becoming “plutonium zero.”

Michael Sailer, former chairman of Germany’s Reactor Safety Commission, said that even if Germany said that it will never manufacture nuclear weapons, France and other surrounding countries would not believe it. Severing Germany’s relationship with plutonium will help allay those fears, he said.

On the other hand, Japan will continue to store its unused plutonium in Britain.

JAPAN NO CHOICE BUT TO RECYCLE NUCLEAR FUEL

Japan is set to venture in earnest into a nuclear fuel recycling program exactly at a time when the Fukushima nuclear disaster has tolled an alarm on the safety of similar nuclear operations.

Leading nations of the world began studying ways to use plutonium to generate electricity after U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower called for a peaceful use of nuclear power in "Atoms for Peace," a December 1953 speech at the United Nations.

The nuclear fuel recycling program was touted as a "dream" system, whereby use of plutonium in a fast breeder reactor would generate more fuel than the amount consumed.

Six decades later, the world has learned that reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium is too costly to be commercially viable. Reprocessing also involves the risk of nuclear proliferation.

The United States and Germany were quick in backing out of a fuel recycling program.

By contrast, Japan is planning to soon start operations at a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, to activate a nuclear fuel recycling program in earnest. In addition, Tokyo still pins its hopes on developing a fast breeder reactor, although many other countries have given up on similar plans.

Japan cannot decide to pull out of the nuclear fuel recycling program because doing so would make it impossible for the country to continue operating its 50 nuclear reactors. If the stockpile of spent fuel, currently lying in storage pools at nuclear plants, was to stop being a resource and be rebranded as waste, those storage pools would quickly fill up unless dumping grounds are located. That is leaving Japan with no other option but to stick to the unrealistic policy of planning to reprocess all spent nuclear fuel.

The ad hoc nature of Japan's nuclear policy is partly attributable to a "private business under national policy" setup, wherein the government sets the course and utilities are in charge of the actual operations. The locus of responsibility has also been made ambiguous under a system whereby reprocessing costs are included in the electricity rates, which are calculated by adding a certain profit margin to the expenses involved.

(This article was compiled from reports of Keiji Takeuchi and Rintaro Sakurai.)

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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A total of 150 kilograms of plutonium is stored in 10 metal containers in an MOX fuel manufacturing factory in Marcoule, France, on Oct. 17. (Jun Ueda)

A total of 150 kilograms of plutonium is stored in 10 metal containers in an MOX fuel manufacturing factory in Marcoule, France, on Oct. 17. (Jun Ueda)

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  • A total of 150 kilograms of plutonium is stored in 10 metal containers in an MOX fuel manufacturing factory in Marcoule, France, on Oct. 17. (Jun Ueda)
  • Spent nuclear fuel is seen in a pool in the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) in Sellafield, Britain, on Oct. 24. (Jun Ueda)
  • Decommissioning works are conducted on Oct. 24 in a compound in Sellafield, Britain, where the world’s first four nuclear reactors for commercial purposes are located. (Jun Ueda)
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