Meanwhile, the country’s plutonium stockpile continues to grow. Including the amount not yet separated from spent fuel, Japan has nearly 160 tonnes of the material. Few countries have more, except for the US, Russia and Great Britain, which have substantially more.
“Our plutonium storage is strictly controlled and it is extremely important for us to burn it as MOX fuel so we don’t possess excess plutonium stockpile,” JNFL senior executive director Kazuo Sakai said.
Rokkasho’s reprocessing plant extracted about 2 tonnes of plutonium from 2006 to 2010, but it has been plagued with mechanical problems and its commercial launch has been delayed for years. JNFL most recently delayed the official launch of its plutonium-extracting unit until next year. The extracted plutonium will sit there for at least three more years until Rokkasho’s MOX fabrication starts up.
Giving up on using plutonium for power would cause Japan to break its international pledge not to possess excess plutonium not designated for power generation. That is why Japan’s nuclear phase out plan drew concern from Washington — the country would end up with tonnes of plutonium left over. To reassure Japan’s allies, government officials said the plan was only a goal, not a commitment.
Japan is the only nation without nuclear weapons that is allowed under international law to enrich uranium and extract plutonium without much scrutiny. Government officials say they should keep the privilege. They also want to hold on to nuclear power and reprocessing technology so they can export that expertise to emerging economies.
Many Japanese officials also want to keep Rokkasho going, especially those in Aomori Prefecture. Residents do not want to lose funding and jobs, though they fear their home state may become a waste dump.
Rokkasho Mayor Kenji Furukawa said the plant, its affiliates and related businesses provide most of the jobs in his village of 11,000.
“Without the plant, this is going to be a marginal place,” he said.
However, local farmer Keiko Kikukawa said her neighbors should stop relying on nuclear money.
“It’s so unfair that Rokkasho is stuck with the nuclear garbage from all over Japan,” she said, walking through a field where she harvested organic rhubarb. “... We’re dumping it all onto our offspring to take care of.”
Nearly 17,000 tonnes of spent fuel are stored at power plants nationwide, almost entirely in spent fuel pools. Their storage space is 70 percent filled on average. Most pools would max out within several years if Rokkasho were to close down, forcing spent fuel to be returned, estimates by a government fuel cycle panel show.
Rokkasho alone will not be able to handle all the spent fuel coming out once approved reactors go back online and the clock is ticking for operators to take steps to create extra space for spent fuel at each plant, Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said.