Japan’s plutonium plans stir up alarm

PUBLIC MISTRUST::The nuclear industry’s desire to add to Japan’s plutonium stocks has been criticized by anti-nuclear activists as well as academics who see it as pointless

Reuters and AP, TOKYO

Sun, Jun 03, 2012 - Page 5

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Japanese prime minister’s office on Friday, chanting slogans against the planned restart of reactors a year after the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.

“We oppose restarts,” the crowd of about 1,000 shouted in the peaceful demonstration.

Public mistrust of nuclear power has grown since the earthquake and tsunami on March 11 last year triggered the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

All of Japan’s nuclear power plants, which once supplied about 30 percent of the country’s energy needs, have been taken offline.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said on Wednesday that it is necessary to restart idled reactors to prevent energy shortages.

A group of regional governors, long concerned about safety at the Kansai Electric Power Co’s two reactors in Ohi, western Japan, signaled their agreement to the restarts as a “limited” step.

Feeding anti-nuclear sentiment was an announcement by Japanese nuclear industry officials, who said they hoped to start producing a half-tonne of plutonium within months, in addition to the more than 35 tonnes Japan already has stored around the world. This is in spite of all the reactors being either inoperable or offline at the moment.

“It’s crazy,” said Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel, a leading authority on nonproliferation issues. “There is absolutely no reason to do that.”

Japan’s nuclear industry produces plutonium — which is strictly regulated globally because it is also 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.

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.”

Other countries 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.

Von Hippel stressed that only two other countries reprocess on a large scale: France and the UK, and the latter 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.

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 consecutive year, the industry has failed to do so.

Kimitake Yoshida, a spokesman for the Federation of Electric Power Companies, said the plutonium would be converted into MOX — a mixture of plutonium and uranium — which can be loaded back into reactors and reused in a cycle. However, technical glitches, cost overruns and local opposition have kept Japan from actually putting the moving parts of that plan into action.

Meanwhile, Japan’s plutonium stockpile has increased fivefold from about 7 tonnes in 1993 to 37 tonnes at the end of 2010. Japan initially said the stockpile would shrink rapidly in early 2000s as its fuel cycle kicked in, but that has not happened.

Critics argue that since no additional spent fuel is being created, this is not a good time start producing more. They also say it makes no sense for Japan to minimize its plutonium glut by calling it a “stockpile” rather than a “surplus.”

Officials stress that Japan files a yearly report detailing its stockpile with the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, it has repeatedly failed to keep to its own schedules for using the plutonium.

In 2006, the nuclear industry said the plutonium-consuming MOX fuel would be used in 16 to 18 conventional reactors “in or after” 2010. In fact, only two reactors used MOX that year. By last year, the number was still just three — including one at the Fukushima plant.

In response to the delays, the industry has simply lengthened its deadlines. It is now shooting for the end of fiscal 2015.

“There really is a credibility problem here,” Von Hippel said. “They keep making up these schedules which are never realized.”