Japan holds to dangerous
plutonium separation plan
By Masako Toki and Miles Pomper
Nearly three years after the Fukushima accident, the fate of nuclear power in Japan remains highly uncertain, with government officials still unable to settle on a new nuclear energy policy. Yet perhaps the most risky element of the Japanese nuclear complex appears to be moving forward with little official consideration: the operation of a massive facility in Rokkasho to separate plutonium in spent nuclear fuel.
Japanese officials need to put a stop to plans to open this reprocessing facility - at least until they can show that this
potential nuclear weapons fuel will be re-used rapidly in the country's now-shuttered nuclear reactors rather than serve as a tempting target for terrorists and a means of undermining nonproliferation objectives in Northeast Asia.
At next month's Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands, Tokyo should make a commitment to delay opening the Rokkasho facility at least until the next Nuclear Security Summit two years hence.
From the inception of its civilian nuclear program, Japan has been strongly committed to developing a self-sufficient closed nuclear fuel cycle, in which spent fuel from light-water reactors is reprocessed to yield plutonium that could be used in making new fuel. As a resource-poor and rapidly industrializing country, Japan intended to avoid potential uranium shortages as it turned to nuclear energy to mitigate its strong dependence on imported fossil fuels.
This led to the construction of the Rokkasho spent fuel recycling complex that could be the first full scale commercial nuclear fuel cycle facility in Japan and the first plutonium separation facility in a country that has forsworn nuclear weapons under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Uncertainty about Japanese nuclear energy
Fukushima upset the assumptions upon which Japan's fuel cycle was based. Since then, nearly all of Japan's 50 nuclear reactors have been shut down - none are operating today. The Japanese government last year published new safety regulations intended to incorporate lessons from Fukushima, and 16 reactors have sought licensing approval to restart. So has the Rokkahso reprocessing plant, which would separate and re-use plutonium.
However, it is not clear exactly when or if the nuclear plants or the reactor will be allowed to operate. In order to restart nuclear power reactors, utilities need to pass the Nuclear Regulation Authority's (NRA) new safety standards assessment. Then, with the consent of local authorities housing the nuclear facilities, the final decision will be made by the national government.
The Japanese public remains opposed to the use of nuclear power. According to a recent opinion poll conducted by Kyodo Tsushin, over 60% of respondents oppose the restart of nuclear power plants while 31% support it. That opposition has been reflected in the tepid public and governmental reception accorded to a draft energy plan approved in December 2013 by the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy under the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI).
This Basic Energy Plan will be the first energy policy to be issued by the national government after the Fukushima accident of March 2011. It was scheduled to be approved by the cabinet by the end of January, but the government put off consideration until after this month's Tokyo gubernatorial election for fear of public opposition and due to an apparent lack of consensus over nuclear policy even among the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the most pro-nuclear of Japan's major political parties.
Moreover, the LDP's junior coalition partner, the New Komei Party, in its manifesto, clearly supports the phase-out of nuclear power as soon as possible, shut down of the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, and a review of Japan's fuel cycle policy, including a transition from reprocessing to direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel.
The draft plan states that nuclear energy is an important base-load power source that serves as a foundation for the stability of Japan's energy supply. It also states that the government of Japan should "steadily promote the nuclear fuel cycle of reprocessing spent fuel, use plutonium-mixed fuel at nuclear power plants".
With the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA)'s issuance last July of new nuclear safety standards and its requirement than all of Japan's nuclear fuel cycle facilities comply with them, Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL), Rokkasho's operator, changed its planned start date from October 2013 to "to be announced".
On December 18, 2013, the NRA put in place new regulations on nuclear fuel cycle facilities, and JNFL applied for safety assessments of the reprocessing plant a few weeks later. JNFL has indicated a nominal starting date of October 2014, expecting the assessment by the NRA to be completed in about six months. However, it is uncertain how long the plant screening will take.
Problem of excess plutonium
Once the reprocessing plant becomes fully operational it would separate about 8 tonnes of plutonium per year. Japan already possesses 44.3 tonnes of separated plutonium: (9.3 tonnes within the country and 35 tonnes in Britain and France). IAEA guidelines say that as little as 8 kilograms of separated plutonium could be used to make a nuclear weapon. That fact has raised nuclear security concerns in the US government and fears among other countries in the region that the stockpile could form the backbone of a Japanese nuclear weapons program, encouraging some others to consider their own program.
Moreover, Japan will not have the capacity at least for a few years to fabricate this separated plutonium into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) that could be burned in a reactor. The expected operation date of the J-MOX at the Rokkasho complex is March 2016, but insiders say that it is highly likely the operation date will be postponed. Therefore, if the plan to make the reprocessing plant operational goes forward, the stockpile of separated plutonium would grow in the meantime.
This is against Japanese policy and IAEA plutonium management guidelines to which Japan adheres, which seek to avoid accumulating stockpiles of separated plutonium.
In 2003, in order to strengthen the principle of avoiding growing plutonium surpluses, the Japan Atomic Energy Commission issued a new guideline for plutonium management. Under that guideline, Japanese electric utilities are expected to publish a plutonium usage plan annually, before they separate plutonium from spent fuel, in order to keep plutonium stocks to the minimum needed for smooth operation.
No MOX consumption
However, assessing such needs in the absence of an overall nuclear energy policy, operating reactors, or a functioning MOX fabrication facility is a fool's errand. Of the 16 reactors that have applied to restart, four are slated to use MOX fuel. These are Ikata-3, Takahama-3 and 4, and Genkai-3. All of these had been previously licensed to use MOX fuel before the Fukushima accident, and with an exception of Takahama-4, they had already MOX fuel loaded.
Two more reactors (Tomari-3 and Shimane 2) had been licensed to use MOX fuel among the 16 reactors, but these two had not been previously loaded with MOX fuel. However, given local community opposition generally to the plant restart, it is uncertain if these reactors can restart with MOX fuel, which is considered by some to be more of a safety risk.
In post-Fukushima Japan, it is clear that the scale of nuclear energy use that Japan had pursued for half a century no longer has sufficient public support. If Japan commissions the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in the near future, it is certain to add to its stockpile of separated plutonium, violating Japan's national policy and global nonproliferation and nuclear security commitments.
At a minimum, Japan should hold off on commissioning the reprocessing plant until the MOX plant has become operational and should pledge to do so to the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit. If the amount of plutonium continues to increase as a result of commissioning the reprocessing plant, it will generate serious concerns inside and outside Japan, aggravating an already volatile security situation in East Asia.
Masako Toki is Project Manager and Research Associate at the Nonproliferation Education Program, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, California. Miles Pomper is a well-known nuclear security specialist, and is former editor of the prestigious Arms Control Today journal.