Experts urge Japan to break away from ‘failed’ nuclear reprocessing program

August 28, 2013

By YASUJI NAGAI/ Senior Staff Writer

In a proposal submitted to The Asahi Shimbun, researchers at an international group of nuclear experts outlined steps they say Japan must take to break away from its “failed” nuclear fuel recycling policy.

Masafumi Takubo and Frank von Hippel of the International Panel on Fissile Materials noted that Japan currently has 44 tons of already separated plutonium, enough to make more than 5,000 Nagasaki-type atomic bombs, while it has no clear path toward disposal.

In the proposal titled, “Ending plutonium separation: An alternative approach to managing Japan’s spent nuclear fuel,” they said Japan’s reprocessing policy has “insignificant” resource conservation and radioactive waste management benefits.

It is also “becoming increasingly dysfunctional, dangerous and costly,” since weapon-useable separated plutonium is a “magnet for would-be nuclear terrorists,” the authors said. Japan’s program is also setting an ill example for countries interested in nuclear-weapon options, they added.

The IPFM is a group of independent nuclear experts from 17 countries whose goal is to promote international initiatives to reduce stocks of plutonium and uranium and limit any further production.

Japan still pins hope on starting reprocessing at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture. But the practical use of its prototype breeder reactor, Monju, is nowhere in sight, the researchers said.

Japan has decided to recycle its accumulating separated plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) uranium-plutonium fuel for light water reactors, but this program, too, has failed, they added.

The report says Japan cannot change its reprocessing policy without the central government and nuclear utilities making a number of difficult decisions at the same time.

One of the decisions is that the central government should convince prefectural and local governments that host Japan’s nuclear power plants to allow on-site dry-cask storage.

The government should also make arrangements to allow Aomori Prefecture and the village of Rokkasho, which are accepting spent fuel, to receive benefits in forms of tax revenue and employment, even after the government gives up its recycling program, the report says.

The government also needs to amend the law governing the national Reprocessing Fund to allow Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. to continue to pay back the loans used to pay for the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant even if a decision is made not to start its commercial operation.

The difficult decisions regarding the pluthermal program to recycle plutonium in light water reactor fuel mean that the industry ministry must concede that the method does not make the radioactive waste less dangerous or easier to dispose of, contrary to its repeated claims, the report says.

The central government should also accept its responsibility to dispose of spent fuel. Then it should move ahead to directly dispose of the 44 tons of already separated plutonium by burying it deep in the ground instead of trying to force public acceptance of the use of MOX fuel at nuclear power plants.

“The United States and most of the other countries that operate nuclear power plants avoid the costs and risks of reprocessing simply by moving older spent fuel into air-cooled dry casks when their spent fuel pools fill up,” the report says.

If the current plan is carried out and the MOX program continues to be stalled, Japan’s total plutonium stockpile will rise to about 100 tons within 10 years--nearly equal to the amount that the United States has produced for weaponry, the report says.

“As the only non-weapon state that reprocesses, Japan is undermining the nonproliferation regime by setting an example that other states interested in a nuclear-weapon option--or even nuclear weapons--can emulate,” it says.

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The full-text of the proposal is available at: http://www.asahi.com/special/nuclear_peace/academic/August2013_english.pdf

By YASUJI NAGAI/ Senior Staff Writer
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