Japan Ramping Up Plutonium Production Despite Reactor Shutdowns

Japan's atomic industry over the next year plans to produce half a ton of plutonium, even though all of the nuclear power plants that could utilize the fuel source are disabled or inactive, the Associated Press reported on Friday (see GSN, April 23).

Tokyo is presently reassessing the role that nuclear power will play in the country's energy mix following last year's disastrous atomic meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. At the end of 2010, Japan's plutonium stockpile stood at 37 tons -- the world's fifth-biggest stockpile -- much of it kept in the United Kingdom and France. Plutonium is produced from used uranium-based nuclear material.

The country's considerable plutonium reserve, which is enough to build roughly 5,000 rudimentary nuclear bombs, has raised security concerns among nonproliferation specialists.

"It's crazy," Princeton University nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel said of the Japanese atomic industry's plutonium production plans. "There is absolutely no reason to do that."

The industry justifies its plutonium production plans by arguing the surplus stocks will eventually be needed when a number of planned reactors are finally built and activated. The future reactors will run on mixed-oxide fuel, which is a blend of uranium and plutonium, Federation of Electric Power Companies spokesman Kimitake Yoshida said.

Once the next-generation reactors are running, Japan would start using up its plutonium reserves, which are forecasted to be completely drawn down no later than 2030, according to officials.

"There is no excess plutonium in this country. It's not just lying around without purpose," Natural Resources and Energy Agency official Koichi Imafuku said.

Some nuclear nations, such as the United States, have reduced their reliance on nuclear reprocessing over fears the technology could be used to spread nuclear weapons and have turned instead to studying options for long-term holding of used reactor material.

"Japan should abandon the [nuclear fuel reprocessing] program altogether. Then we can also contribute to the global effort for nuclear-nonproliferation," said Hideyuki Ban of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, an organization that opposes atomic energy production.

Just two other nations generate large quantities of civilian-sector plutonium: the United Kingdom and France. London, though, has chosen to cease its large-scale plutonium production.

The Japanese atomic energy industry projects that before fiscal 2015 is over, 16 to 18 traditional reactors will begin using MOX fuel. When the Fukushima disaster occurred, only three reactors were running on MOX fuel.

"There really is a credibility problem here. They keep making up these schedules which are never realized," von Hippel said of the atomic sector. "I think the ship is sinking beneath them" (Talmadge/Yamaguchi, Associated Press/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 1).

June 1, 2012
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Japan's atomic industry over the next year plans to produce half a ton of plutonium, even though all of the nuclear power plants that could utilize the fuel source are disabled or inactive, the Associated Press reported on Friday.

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