Last year’s tsunami disaster in Japan clouded the nation’s nuclear future, idled its reactors and rendered its huge stockpile of plutonium useless for now. So, the industry’s plan to produce even more has raised a red flag.
Nuclear industry officials say they hope to start producing 0.45 tonne of plutonium within months, in addition to the more than 31.7 tonnes Japan already has stored around the world. That’s even though all the reactors that might use it are either inoperable or offline while the country rethinks its nuclear policy after the tsunami-generated Fukushima crisis.
“It’s crazy,” said Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel, a leading authority on nonproliferation issues and a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology. “There is absolutely no reason to do that.”
Japan’s nuclear industry produces plutonium — which is strictly regulated globally because it also is used for nuclear weapons — by reprocessing spent, uranium-based fuel in a procedure aimed at decreasing radioactive waste that otherwise would require long-term storage.
The industry wants to reprocess more to build up reserves in anticipation of when it has a network of reactors that run on a next-generation fuel that includes plutonium and that can be reused in a self-contained cycle — but that much-delayed day is still far off.
Japanese officials argue that, once those plans are in place, the reactors will draw down the stockpile and use up most of it by 2030.
“There is no excess plutonium in this country,” said Koichi Imafuku, an official at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy. “It’s not just lying around without purpose.”
In the meantime, the country’s post-Fukushima review of nuclear policy is pitting a growing number of critics who want to turn away from plutonium altogether against an entrenched nuclear industry that wants to push forward with it.
Other countries, including the US, have scaled back the separation of plutonium because it is a proliferation concern and is more expensive than other alternatives, including long-term storage of spent fuel.
Fuel reprocessing remains unreliable and it is questionable whether it is a viable way of reducing Japan’s massive amounts of spent fuel rods, said Takeo Kikkawa, a Hitotsubashi University professor specializing in energy issues.
“Japan should abandon the program altogether,” said Hideyuki Ban, co-director of a respected anti-nuclear Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center. “Then we can also contribute to the global effort for nuclear non-proliferation.”
Von Hippel stressed that only two other countries reprocess on a large scale: France and Britain, and Britain has decided to stop. Japan’s civilian-use plutonium stockpile is already the fifth-largest in the world, and it has enough plutonium to make about 5,000 simple nuclear warheads, although it does not manufacture them.
Because of inherent dangers of plutonium stockpiles, government regulations require industry representatives to announce by March 31 how much plutonium they intend to produce in the year ahead and explain how they will use it.
However, for the second year in a row, the industry has failed to do so. They blame the government for failing to come up with a long-term policy after Fukushima, but say they nevertheless want to make more plutonium if they can get a reprocessing plant going by October.