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Civilian HEU: Japan

  • Kyoto University Reactor (KUR) Kyoto University Reactor (KUR)
    www.rri.kyoto-u.ac.jp
  • Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) Core Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) Core
    rpg.jaea.go.jp

One of the earliest countries to participate in Atoms for Peace, Japan has utilized research reactors and critical assemblies powered by uranium enriched to 90 or 93 percent since the 1960s. Tokyo, however, became an early participant in civil HEU minimization efforts with a 1978 long-term plan concerning the research, development, and usage of nuclear power stating that, "Japan has already positively participated in the International Fuel Cycle Evaluation and wishes to make a positive contribution to establishing a new international order for promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy in the future." [1]

1978 also marked the first meeting of the special "Five Agency Committee on HEU," comprised of representatives of the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA, until 2005 called the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, JAERI), and Kyoto University. [2]

Japan's two largest owners of HEU-fueled facilities, Kyoto University and JAERI, began to work with the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program in 1978 and 1979, respectively. [3] The Five Agency Committee directed the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program in Japan. The committee was active until 2000, but has not met since 2001 because the LEU conversion activities of the reactors under the RERTR program in Japan are in their closing phase. [4] Tokyo is nearing completion of the three-decades-long process to convert and shut down its HEU-powered facilities.

At the third Nuclear Security Summit that was held in The Hague, the Netherlands in March 2014, Japanese and U.S. leaders agreed to remove and dispose all highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium from the Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) in Tokai Mura, Ibaraki Prefecture in Japan. [5]  
 
The amount of material to be eliminated was not specified in the Joint Statement. However, since the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) annually issues the Current Situation of Plutonium Management for the purpose of enhancing transparency, the amount of plutonium is clear. It is approximately 700 pounds, or 320 kilograms. [6] As for the amount of HEU, it is estimated to be about 214.5 kilograms, or 450 pounds of weapons grade HEU. [7] Repatriation of spent fuel elements from these facilities to storage sites in the United States began in 1997, and continues today under the auspices of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI).

Overview

Unlike several other states, Japan does not voluntarily declare its HEU holdings as part of its annual INFCIRC 549 plutonium report to the IAEA. [8] However, as part of efforts to enhance transparency, the Japan Atomic Energy Commission has requested relevant Japanese agencies to disclose the amounts of their HEU holdings. [9] The HEU materials at Japanese research facilities were supplied by the United States and the United Kingdom. [10] Approximately 500 kg of HEU at Japan's FCA critical assembly, which started up in 1967, are of UK origin. [11] Under the Atoms for Peace framework, the United States exported HEU fuel to Japan for research applications. Between 1957 and 1994, Washington sent 1,000 kg of U-235 to Japan contained in 2,054 kg of uranium. [12] Accounting for repatriated material, Japan now has approximately 1,200 to 1,400 kg of HEU. [13]

Fuel Return
In December 2008 Andrew Bieniawski, NNSA assistant deputy administrator for global threat reduction, announced that a total of 579.7 kg of spent HEU had been returned to the United States from Japan as of summer 2008. [14] In 2009, the Foreign Research Reactor, Spent Nuclear Fuel (FRR SNF) Acceptance Program was extended, and under the extended contract all of the remaining HEU spent fuel elements from the Japan Material Testing Reactor Critical Assembly (JMTRC) are scheduled for shipment to the United States by December 2013. [15] This will complete all of the planned JAEA HEU shipments to the United States, because all of the shipments from the JRR-3, JRR 4 and JMTR have been completed. The shipment of HEU spent fuel from KUR of Kyoto University under the FRR SNF acceptance program started in 1999. All seven scheduled shipments were successfully completed in 2007. [16]

Between May 1996 and May 2010 Japan sent back spent fuel elements containing approximately 656 kg of HEU (originally containing 354 kg of U-235). [17] During that time, nine shipments of spent fuel from JRR-3, JRR-4, JMTR, and JMTRC of JAEA were successfully completed. [18] GTRI also reportedly plans repatriation of Gap Materials from several Japanese facilities to the Savannah River Site in the near future. [19]

HEU Production
Because it possesses an advanced nuclear power program, since 1992 Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. has operated a facility at Rokkasho that enriches uranium for nuclear fuel. Rokkasho only produces low-enriched uranium (less than 20% U-235). Expansion of this facility had been planned. [20] However, due to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that caused the worst nuclear accident in a quarter century at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the future of Japan's nuclear energy policy is still uncertain. [21]

Japan's other enrichment plants have been shut down. These are: JNC Ningyo-Toge Enrichment Demo. Plant and Ningyo-Toge Uranium Pilot Plant (both pilot centrifuge plants, shut down in 2004); the Asahi Uranium Enrichment Laboratory, Hyuga, Miyazaki prefecture (a pilot chemical exchange plant, shut down in 1991); and two laser enrichment labs in Tokai (shut down in 2003 and 2005). [22]

Continuing HEU Use
Japan currently operates four research reactors and four critical assemblies. [23] With the agreement between Japan and the United States that was formalized at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in March 2014, the HEU at the FCA will be downblended to low enriched uranium (LEU). [24] Currently, one research reactor (UTR KINKI owned by Kinki University) and one critical assembly (KUCA owned by KURRI), are still HEU-powered. [25] One other research reactor (NSRR) used HEU in the past, but is now employing 19.89% silicide fuel classified as LEU, and is in any case temporarily shutdown. [26]

Conversion and Shutdown of HEU-Fueled Reactors and Critical Assemblies

Tokyo has closely cooperated with the RERTR program and is currently in the final stages of conversion and shutdown of most HEU-powered facilities. Since 1990, Tokyo has converted four operational research reactors. The JRR-3M, JRR-4, JMTR, and KUR, all operated by JAEA, were converted in 1990, 1998, 1994, and 2010, respectively. [27] The Japan Material Testing Reactor Critical Assembly (JMTRC) and the JRR-2 reactor were shut down in 1995 and 1996, respectively. Also shut down were the Toshiba Training Reactor (TTR) (2001), the Rikkyo TRIGA (2002), and the Musashi MuITR (2004). [28] Decommissioning of the Very High Temperature Reactor Critical (VHTRC) Assembly was completed in 2009, and the DCA (Deuterium Critical Assembly) decommissioning process is underway. Both facilities are located at JAEA's Oarai Research and Development Center. [29]

All new research reactors in Japan have been designed with the use of LEU fuel in mind. In February 1991, the Japanese government cancelled the HEU-powered Kyoto University High Flux Reactor (KUHFR) Project. However, the U.S.-origin HEU fuel intended for use in this reactor was used in the Kyoto University Research Reactor (KUR) until February 2006, following U.S. approval in April 1994. The United States has been repatriating the fuel at Kyoto University; the full core conversion from HEU to LEU of the KUR was successfully completed in March 2010. [30] The conversion date had been delayed by difficulties in the development of high-density fuel. [31]

Two HEU-powered facilities, the Kyoto University Critical Assembly (KUCA), operated by Kyoto University's Research Reactor Institute, and the UTR KINKI research reactor, operated by Kinki University, are currently undergoing GTRI feasibility studies. GTRI aims to initiate the conversion of these reactors to LEU within the next four years, and technical feasibility studies have been conducted to that effect. [32] Since 2008, Kyoto University and the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory have been conducting joint feasibility studies for KUCA with the aim of substituting LEU-based fuel for the existing HEU. [33] Furthermore, in March 2012 the two countries also agreed to launch joint feasibility studies on how to operate the UTR KINKI research reactor using LEU instead of HEU. [34]

The decision to eliminate all of the plutonium and HEU at the FCA is a significant step forward for nuclear security. This is a result of President Obama's efforts to minimize nuclear weapons usable material at civilian facilities to enhance nuclear security. The transfer agreement was formalized at the third Nuclear Security Summit on 24 March 2014 in the Netherlands. The plan to transport both HEU and weapons-grade plutonium to the United States and fully convert it into less sensitive forms was announced in the Joint Statement. The HEU will be downblended to low enriched uranium (LEU), and the plutonium will be prepared for final disposition. [35] 
 
The FCA is designed to test the criticality of fast-neutron-reactor cores, purposes for which it was considered to be technically difficult to use LEU instead of HEU. [36] The FCA possesses approximately 214.5 kg of weapons-grade uranium, and approximately 349.9 kg of 20% enriched uranium. It also possesses approximately 320 kg of plutonium [37]. 
 
The YAYOI reactor operated by Tokyo University had employed HEU, but was permanently shut down at the end of March 2011 after 40 years' operation. It was decided that the spent HEU fuel from the reactor would be transferred to the JAEA. [38]
 
As part of Japan's efforts to minimize civilian use of HEU, the JAEA has developed technology to generate the medical isotope Molybdenum 99 without HEU. This new technology is expected to produce between one-fifth and one-fourth of the quantity required for Japan's domestic market. The JAEA aims to make this technology commercially viable by Japan's fiscal year 2015. As a next step, the JAEA has to conduct technology demonstration tests at its JMTRC. [39]

Policy Issues

As an active participant in HEU minimization efforts since their inception, Tokyo has made important contributions to minimizing the use of this material. However, Japan's policy on how to handle its HEU materials has been less clear, and there are simultaneous and interlinked concerns regarding Japan's policy on plutonium. [40] Tokyo has considered storing spent HEU fuel in Japan, repatriating it to the United States, or sending it abroad to France or the United Kingdom for reprocessing. [41] There have been some shipments of HEU to the United States, but other HEU fuel remains in Japan. Furthermore, while the JAEA and Kyoto University reportedly paid for spent fuel shipping, storage, and handling expenses related to repatriation operations, the Japanese government does not appear to have contributed money or manpower for this purpose. [42] Some Japanese institute officials have suggested that the Japanese government consider deeper engagement in repatriation operations. [43]

Sources:
[1] Yukiya Amano, "Reducing the Enrichment Level of Uranium Fuel: Japan's Experience," presented at the Minimization of Highly Enriched Uranium in the Civilian Sector Symposium, Oslo, Norway, June 19, 2006, www.nrpa.no.
[2] Yukiya Amano, "Reducing the Enrichment Level of Uranium Fuel: Japan's Experience," presented at the Minimization of Highly Enriched Uranium in the Civilian Sector Symposium, Oslo, Norway, June 19, 2006, www.nrpa.no.
[3] Yukiya Amano, "Reducing the Enrichment Level of Uranium Fuel: Japan's Experience," presented at the Minimization of Highly Enriched Uranium in the Civilian Sector Symposium, Oslo, Norway, June 19, 2006, www.nrpa.no.
[4] Keiichi Ohki et al., "Status of Reduced Enrichment Program for Research Reactors in Japan," paper presented at the 2010 RERTR International Meeting, October 2010, Lisbon, Portugal, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[5] Joint Statement by the Leaders of Japan and the United States on Contributions to Global Minimization of Nuclear Material, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, March 24, 2014, www.mofa.go.jp.
[6] The Current Situation of Plutonium Management in Japan, Japan Atomic Energy Commission, September 11, 2013, www.aec.go.jp.
[7] Matthew Bunn, "Eliminating Potential Bomb Material from Japan's Fast Critical Assembly," Nuclear Security Matters, March 24, 2014, http://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org.
[8] International Atomic Energy Agency, “Communication Received from Japan Concerning Its Policies Regarding the Management of Plutonium,” INFCIRC/549/Add.1/16, September 23, 2013, www.iaea.org.
[9] Personal communication with the authors.
[10] Approximately 500 kg of HEU at Japan's FCA critical assembly are of UK origin. David Albright and Kimberly Kramer, "Civil HEU Watch: Tracking Inventories of Civil Highly Enriched Uranium," Global Stocks of Nuclear Explosive Materials, Institute for Science and International Security Chapter III, http://isis-online.org.
[11] David Albright and Kimberly Kramer, "Civil HEU Watch: Tracking Inventories of Civil Highly Enriched Uranium," Global Stocks of Nuclear Explosive Materials, Institute for Science and International Security Chapter III, http://isis-online.org.
[12] Of this total, 507 kg U-235 were contained in 1,523 kg of uranium enriched up to 90%, while the remaining 493 kg of U-235 were contained in fuel enriched to over 90% U-235. Highly Enriched Uranium: Striking a Balance, Department of Energy, released January 2001, p. 100, www.fas.org.
[13] International Panel on Fissile Materials, Global Fissile Material Report 2010, January 2011, http://fissilematerials.org; Michelle Cann, Kelsey Davenport, Sarah William, The Nuclear Security Summit: Progress Report, July 2013, p. 31, retrieved at: www.armscontrol.org.
[14] Keiichi Ohki et al., "Status of Reduced Enrichment Program for Research Reactors in Japan," paper presented at the 2010 RERTR International Meeting, October 2010, Lisbon, Portugal, www.rertr.anl.gov; "Uranium for 20 Nukes Repatriated from Japan in Special U.S. Operation," Japan Economic Newswire, Kyodo, December 27, 2008, hosted on the Professional Reactor Operator Society website, December 28, 2008, www.nucpros.com.
[15] Keiichi Ohki et al., "Status of Reduced Enrichment Program for Research Reactors in Japan," paper presented at the 2010 RERTR International Meeting, October 2010, Lisbon, Portugal, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[16] Keiichi Ohki et al., "Status of Reduced Enrichment Program for Research Reactors in Japan," paper presented at the 2010 RERTR International Meeting, October 2010, Lisbon, Portugal, www.rertr.anl.gov; "Kyoudai Genshiro no Kyuu Hairo Mondai [On the Issue of Shutdown of Kyoto University's Research Reactor] (in Japanese)" http://homepage3.nifty.com.
[17] "Uranium for 20 Nukes Repatriated from Japan in Special U.S. Operation," Japan Economic Newswire, Kyodo, December 27, 2008, hosted on the Professional Reactor Operator Society website, December 28, 2008, www.nucpros.com. In this article, GTRI's Andrew Bieniawski noted that 523 kg of HEU were from JAEA facilities and JAEA had, thus far, completed shipment of 95% of materials from its facilities. A JAEA official noted that the remaining 5% would be repatriated by 2014. By summer 2008, Kyoto University had sent back 50 kg of HEU.
[18] International Panel on Fissile Materials, Global Fissile Material Report 2010, January 2011, fn. 764, p. 203, http://fissilematerials.org.
[19] For a useful map, see: “Commercial and Research Nuclear Facilities in Japan,” Citizen's Nuclear Information Center, January 2010, www.cnic.jp. Notes: Todd Jacobson, "NNSA Makes Plans to Ship More Spent Fuel to SRS," Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor, 2 February 2009; Department of Energy, Revised Record of Decision for the Environmental Impact Statement on a Proposed Nuclear Weapons Nonproliferation Policy Concerning Foreign Research Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel, Federal Register, Vol. 74. No. 14, 23 January 2009.
[20] For a primer on Japan's nuclear power program, see: "Nuclear Power in Japan," World Nuclear Association, March 2009, www.world-nuclear.org.
[21] For more information about Japan's nuclear energy policy debates, see Japan Nuclear Overview, www.nti.org.
[22] Arjun Makhijani, Lois Chalmers, and Brice Smith, "Uranium Enrichment: Just Plain Facts to Fuel an Informed Debate on Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Power," Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, October 15, 2004, p. 25, www.ieer.org.
[23] Toshinobu Ohba, Takeshi Inoue, and Hironobu Unesaki, "Status of Reduced Enrichment Program for Research Reactors in Japan," paper presented at the 2008 RERTR International Meeting, October 2008, Washington, DC, United States, www.rertr.anl.gov; Keiichi Ohki et al., "Status of Reduced Enrichment Program for Research Reactors in Japan," paper presented at the 2010 RERTR International Meeting, October 2010, Lisbon, Portugal, www.rertr.anl.gov; International Atomic Energy Agency, “Research Reactors,” October 30, 2013, http://nucleus.iaea.org; "Kenkyuukaihatsukikan, Daigaku no Kenkyuuro, [Research Reactors at Research and Development Institutes and Universities," Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, July 9, 2009, www.jaif.or.jp.
[24] Joint Statement by the Leaders of Japan and the United States on Contributions to Global Minimization of Nuclear Material, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, March 24, 2014, www.mofa.go.jp.
[25] Keiichi Ohki et al., "Status of Reduced Enrichment Program for Research Reactors in Japan," paper presented at the 2010 RERTR International Meeting, October 2010, Lisbon, Portugal, www.rertr.anl.gov; International Atomic Energy Agency, “Research Reactors,” October 30, 2013, http://nucleus.iaea.org.
[26] Keiichi Ohki et al., "Status of Reduced Enrichment Program for Research Reactors in Japan," paper presented at the 2010 RERTR International Meeting, October 2010, Lisbon, Portugal, www.rertr.anl.gov; International Atomic Energy Agency, “Research Reactors,” October 30, 2013, http://nucleus.iaea.org; Kazuaki Yanagisawa, Toshio Fujishiro, Oichiro Horiki, Kazuhiko Soyama, Hiroki Ichikawa, Tsuneo Kodaira, “Dimensional Stability of Uranium Silicide Plate-Type Reactors at Transient Condition,” Journal of Nuclear Science and Technology, Vol. 29, No. 3, March 1992, p. 235.
[27] Keiichi Ohki et al., "Status of Reduced Enrichment Program for Research Reactors in Japan," paper presented at the 2010 RERTR International Meeting, October 2010, Lisbon, Portugal, www.rertr.anl.gov. The JMTR was initially converted from 93% HEU fuel to 45% enriched fuel in 1991, and then to the current 19.8% enriched fuel in 1994. Masataka Miyazawa, Masao Watanabe, Makoto Yokokawa, Hiroshi Sato, and Haruhiko Ito, "Present Status of JMTR Spent Fuel Shipment," RERTR-2002, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[28] Keiichi Ohki et al., "Status of Reduced Enrichment Program for Research Reactors in Japan," paper presented at the 2010 RERTR International Meeting, October 2010, Lisbon, Portugal, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[29] "Haishisochi wo Shuuryou Shita Shisetsu, [Facilities That have Completed their Decommission Procedures.]," Japan Atomic Energy Agency, www.jaea.go.jp; "Juusuirinkaijikkensouchi no Haishisochikeikaku no Shinchokujoukyou Houkokusho (Heisei 24 nendo Dai-ni shihanki) no Teishutsu ni tsuite [Report of Decommissioning Process of the Very High Temperature Reactor Critical Assembly (Quarterly Report of Second Quarter of Fiscal Year 2012) Nuclear Regulation Authority Website, November 6, 2012, www.nsr.go.jp.
[30] Toshinobu Ohba, Takeshi Inoue, and Hironobu Unesaki, "Status of Reduced Enrichment Program for Research Reactors in Japan," paper presented at the 2008 RERTR International Meeting, October 2008, Washington, DC, United States, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[31] Unesaki, Sano, Misawa, and Nakajima, "Full Core Conversion of the Kyoto University Research Reactor (KUR) from HEU to LEU, paper presented at the 2010 RERTR International Meeting, October 2010, Lisbon, Portugal, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[32] Ann MachLachlan, "Kyoto Reactor Institute Mulls Extension of HEU operation," NuclearFuel, April 17, 2000, p. 15; Jeff Chamberlin, "Research Reactor Conversion Program," U.S. National Academies - Russian Academies of Science, presentation given at the Symposium on Research Reactor Conversion, November 29, 2010, http://dels.nas.edu; Hironobu Unesaki, Tsuyoshi Misawa, Tadafumi Sano, Ken Nakajima, Jordi Roglans-Ribas, “On the Feasibility Study for Utilization of Low Enriched Uranium Fuel at Kyoto University Critical Assembly (KUCA),” paper presented at RERTR, October 23-27, 2011, Santiago, Chile, pp. 1-2, www.rertr.anl.gov; G. Wakabayashi, T. Itoh, K. Hashimoto, S. Ito, H. Yamanishi, W. Sugiyama, T. Horiguchi, S. Hohara, “History and Present Situation of Kinki University Reactor (UTR-KINKI),” paper presented at RERTR, October 14-17, 2012, Warsaw, Poland, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[33] Hironobu Unesaki, Tsuyoshi Misawa, Cheol-Ho Pyeon, Tadafumi Sano, Yoshiyuki Takahashi and Ken Nakajima, "Neutronic Analysis for Utilization of Low Enriched Uranium Fuel At Light Water Moderated / Reflected Core of Kyoto University Critical Assembly (KUCA)" paper presented at the 2012 RERTR International Meeting, October 2012, Warsaw, Poland, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[34] "U.S., Japan to Research Uranium Fuel Swaps," The Japan Times, March 26, 2012, www.japantimes.co.jp.
[35] Joint Statement by the Leaders of Japan and the United States on Contributions to Global Minimization of Nuclear Material, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, March 24, 2014, www.mofa.go.jp.
[36] "Kakufukakusan ni kansuru Nihon no Koremadeno Torimumi to sono Bunseki [Japan's Efforts for Nuclear Nonproliferation and its analysis]" JAEA Website, August 2010, www.jaea.go.jp.
[37] "Japan to return plutonium used in critical assembly to the United States," IPFM Blog, International Panel on Fissile Materials, January 27, 2014, http://fissilematerials.org.
[38] The University of Tokyo's Yayoi Reactor Website, www.tokai.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp; Japan Atomic Energy Commission website, March 21, 2012, www.aec.go.jp.
[39] "Japan Devises HEU-Free Medical Isotope Production Method," Global Security Newswire, November 28, 2012, www.nti.org.
[40] For discussion of policy issues regarding Japan's plutonium stockpile, see: Tadahiro Katsuta and Tatsujiro Suzuki, "Japan's Spent Fuel and Plutonium Management Challenges," International Panel on Fissile Materials Research Report #2, September 2006. For a discussion of other nuclear-related policy issues, see Emma Chanlett-Avery and Mary Beth Nikitin, "Japan's Nuclear Future: Policy Debate, Prospects, and U.S. Interests," Congressional Research Service Report RL34487, February 19, 2009, retrieved at: www.fas.org. Also see: Masako Toki and Miles Pomper, "Time to Stop Reprocessing in Japan," Arms Control Today, January/February 2013, www.armscontrol.org.
[41] Ann MachLachlan, "Kyoto Reactor Institute Mulls Extension of HEU operation," NuclearFuel, April 17, 2000, p. 15.
[42] "Uranium for 20 Nukes Repatriated from Japan in Special U.S. Operation,"Japan Economic Newswire, Kyodo, December 27, 2008, hosted on the Professional Reactor Operator Society website, December 28, 2008, www.nucpros.com.
[43] "Uranium for 20 Nukes Repatriated from Japan in Special U.S. Operation," Japan Economic Newswire, Kyodo, December 27, 2008, hosted on the Professional Reactor Operator Society website, December 28, 2008, www.nucpros.com.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

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The article is part of a collection examining civilian HEU reduction and elimination efforts. It details current Japanese HEU policies, progress reducing and eliminating the civil use of HEU in Japan, and remaining challenges.

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