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Japan's reprocessing plans

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Japan continues to work towards operation of the Rokkasho reprocessing facility in the northern Aomori prefecture. Both the Japan Atomic Energy Commission and Japan Nuclear Fuel have cited October as the start-up date for the facility. However operation is likely to be further delayed in order to meet requirements yet to be set by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was created in response to the Fukushima disaster.

Japan's government and private companies have invested more than US$21 billion in the Rokkasho plant since construction began in 1992. The startup of the plant has been delayed 19 times because of technical and financial problems. [Dow Jones Newswire, 2013]

When operating at full capacity, the Rokkasho plant could separate around nine tonnes of plutonium from 800 tonnes of spent fuel annually; sufficient to build around 900 weapons annually. Diversion of, say, 1% of the separated plutonium would be difficult for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to detect against the background of routine accounting discrepancies, yet it would provide enough plutonium to build one nuclear weapon every 4−6 weeks.

There have been incidents of large-scale plutonium accounting problems in Japan. The 'Atoms in Japan' publication provides one such example. In 2003 it was discovered that of the 6.9 tons of plutonium separated at the Tokai reprocessing facility in the period from 1977 to 2002, the measured amount of plutonium was 206 kgs less than it should have been. After further investigations, the Japanese government claimed that it could account for some of the discrepancy and reduced the figure to 59 kgs. [Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, 2003.]

Japanese officials argue that the reprocessing program is for civil purposes only and that reprocessing is a necessary step towards using the plutonium as reactor fuel and thus reducing plutonium stockpiles. However in practice the use of mixed uranium/plutonium MOX fuel does not reduce plutonium stockpiles because MOX-fuelled reactors produce more plutonium than they consume. Moreover, only four reactors, including the No. 3 reactor at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant, have so far used MOX fuel.

Fast neutron (a.k.a. fast breeder) reactors could reduce plutonium stockpiles − but fast reactor programs have mostly been expensive and accident-prone and have done precious little to reduce plutonium stockpiles. Those problems have been all too evident with the accident-prone, scandal-prone Monju fast reactor in Japan.

In the latest scandal, Atsuyuki Suzuki, President of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), which operates the Monju reactor, has resigned after the Agency admitted that it had neglected to perform safety inspections on almost 10,000 pieces of equipment, some of them critical for safe operation of the reactor. A statement from the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) said: "The Japan Atomic Energy Agency cannot sufficiently secure the safety of Monju. We see deterioration in its safety culture."

The Monju reactor was first brought online in 1994, but a serious sodium coolant leak and subsequent cover-up by JAEA led to a 15-year shutdown. In 2010, the reactor was restarted for testing, but an equipment accident ceased operations before the reactor could reach full capacity. As a result of the latest scandal, plans to restart the reactor have been pushed back and preparatory work has been delayed. Japan Times recently editorialised that the NRA should order the permanent shut-down of Monju and noted that "the JAEA has learned nothing from the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, which was caused in part by lax management."

The contradictions with Japan's plutonium program are still more acute since all but two of the country's reactors are shut-down in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Nevertheless, a shipment of MOX left the port of Cherbourg in northern France in mid-April and is scheduled to arrive in Japan in the second half of June, destined for Kansai Electric Power Co's Takahama plant west of Tokyo.

An editorial in The Asahi Shimbun on April 22 outlined the dilemma that seems to be driving the continued pursuit of Japan's plutonium program: "Still, the government and the electric power industry insist on continuing the fuel recycling program because terminating it would turn spent fuel into radioactive waste, causing them to violate an agreement with Aomori Prefecture, which has accepted the related facilities. There is no justification for continuing the now-unrealistic reprocessing program even if ending it requires a time-consuming process of securing the consent of the local communities through earnest dialogue. It is critical that a realistic road map toward interim storage and eventual direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel is worked out. It would be highly irresponsible to try to operate the reprocessing plant simply because it has been built."

Regional implications of Japan's plutonium program
The US government has reportedly expressed concern about Japan's reprocessing plans. Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice-chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, met in April in Washington with Obama administration officials. Suzuki said he was told that separating and stockpiling large amounts of plutonium without clear prospects for its use as reactor fuel sets a bad example. In particular, Japan's plans complicate efforts to prevent the development of reprocessing in South Korea and Taiwan, and could also encourage an expansion of reprocessing in China.

These problems have been festering for decades. Diplomatic cables in 1993 and 1994 from US Ambassadors in Tokyo described Japan's accumulation of plutonium as "massive" and questioned the rationale for the stockpiling of so much plutonium since it appeared to be economically unjustified. A March 1993 diplomatic cable from US Ambassador Armacost in Tokyo to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act, posed these questions: "Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan's being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?"

Further raising concerns are calls by hawkish South Korean and Japanese politicians to consider developing nuclear weapons after North Korea began a series of atomic-weapons tests in 2006 (including tests using plutonium produced in an 'experimental power reactor'). Japan's then defence minister Satoshi Morimoto said in 2012 that Japan's nuclear power program is "taken by neighbouring countries as having very great defensive deterrent functions" and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba said: "Having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons." In 2002, Ichiro Ozawa, then leader of the Liberal Party in Japan, said: "It would be so easy for us to produce nuclear warheads – we have plutonium at nuclear power plants in Japan, enough to make several thousand such warheads."

A new US − South Korean nuclear-cooperation agreement, which would allow for the continued sale of US-origin fuel and equipment, was recently deferred for two years. Seoul wants to be allowed to begin enriching uranium and reprocessing spent reactor fuel, but Washington resisted and the two countries agreed to extend the current agreement (which prohibits enrichment and reprocessing in South Korea) while negotiations continue.

"If the Koreans are left with the impression that Japan can do things that South Korea can't, then it's not a sustainable concept," said Christopher Hill, a former American ambassador to Seoul.

It is well within the capacity of the US to take concrete steps to curb the separation and stockpiling of plutonium in Japan. The US has the authority to disallow separation and stockpiling of US-obligated plutonium, i.e. plutonium produced from nuclear materials originally mined or processed in the US. However there has been no suggestion that the US will take such a step.

President Obama cautioned at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul: "We simply can't go on accumulating huge amounts of the very material, like separated plutonium, that we're trying to keep away from terrorists." But it appears to be all talk and no action.

In April, China signed an agreement with French nuclear-power company Areva SA to construct a new reprocessing plant similar in size to Rokkasho. Beijing says the plant will be used only for civilian purposes − but it would inevitably increase China's capacity to separate plutonium for potential use in nuclear weapons.

Henry Sokolski from the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center said: "As a practical matter, if it operates Rokkasho, it will force China to respond to re-establish that it, Beijing, not Tokyo, is the most dominant nuclear player in East Asia. Such nuclear tit-for-tats-manship could get ugly."


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