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The problems with Japan's plutonium: What are they and how do we deal with them?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Caitlin Stronell ‒ Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, Japan

The Citizens' Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) recently organized a seminar with guest speaker Prof. Frank von Hippel, a nuclear physicist from Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security, presenting alternative ways to dispose of spent fuel instead of reprocessing, as well as options for disposal of separated plutonium. After this presentation of technical solutions, a panel discussion took place. Prof. Eiji Oguma, a historical sociologist from Keio University's Faculty of Policy Management and a well-known commentator on the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear movement in Japan, pointed out the political barriers that must be overcome if any of these technical solutions were to be actually implemented, no matter how much more reasonable they may seem from economic and safety perspectives. CNIC's General Secretary, Hajime Matsukubo was also on the panel and brought into the discussion the international implications of Japan's plutonium policy including the US-Japan Nuclear Agreement.

Prof. von Hippel explained that plutonium disposal is a global problem, with more than half of the existent separated plutonium being produced as a result of civilian reprocessing, the rest produced for military purposes. Disposing of the plutonium that had been produced for weapons during the cold war has been a huge headache for the United States with planned disposal by burning it as MOX fuel in commercial reactors proving hugely expensive.

America has all but abandoned its half-built MOX plant and is now looking towards the 'dilute and dispose' option. This process would use glove boxes to mix 300 grams of plutonium oxide into a can of 'star dust' (a secret ingredient from which plutonium would be difficult to separate again). This can would then be placed in a plastic bag and another 'outer blend can.'

Another way of immobilizing plutonium is the Hot Isostatic Pressing method, which is being developed in the UK and utilizes radiation-resistant, low-solubility ceramic. After plutonium has been immobilized, it is safer to bury it underground than keep it on the surface and Prof. von Hippel mentioned the deep borehole disposal method which uses techniques developed for drilling oil and geothermal wells that can bore five kilometers into the earth. In the US, however, plans for a demonstration project of this method of radioactive waste disposal were rejected by local governments.

Prof. von Hippel stressed that the main lesson for Japan is that separated plutonium is extremely difficult to dispose of and that it is definitely better not to separate any more than is already stockpiled. Instead of sending spent fuel from the nation's nuclear power plants to Rokkasho for reprocessing, it would be safer and much cheaper and more efficient to set up dry cask storage for the spent fuel onsite at the plant. Prof. von Hippel showed us successful examples of this method in the US and suggested that there were moves in this direction in Japan as well.

Prof. von Hippel's detailed technical solutions were very convincing. Yet despite the dangers of holding such a large plutonium stockpile (47 metric tons, enough for approximately 6,000 nuclear weapons), despite the massive costs involved and despite having no concrete viable plans as to how to actually use the separated plutonium, official Japanese government policy is to continue to separate even more plutonium at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, which is currently due to commence operations in 2021.

In the panel discussion which followed Prof. von Hippel's presentation, Prof. Oguma agreed that reprocessing was most certainly problematic, but, he pointed out, it will be extremely difficult to just put up onsite storage of spent fuel, no matter how reasonable a technical solution it is. Political consent must be gained from the people in communities, which will not just be hosting the nuclear power plant, but will be asked to store its radioactive waste as well. As Prof. Oguma pointed out, especially post-Fukushima Daiichi, no one trusts the Japanese Government's nuclear policy and the likelihood that they will agree to yet another imposition that can be perceived to be long-term and dangerous, is very low.

Much of the Japanese public also believes that onsite storage is merely an excuse for the nuclear industry to keep afloat. If spent fuel pools fill up, utilities will not be able to operate their plants. For many activists this is one way of closing them down, which is their main aim. Prof. Oguma argued that a minimum requirement for any form of political consent to onsite storage would be a clear commitment by the government to phase out all nuclear power by a fixed date, so that the final amount of waste can be determined and will not just keep growing, along with the burden on local people. 

This is a significant difference in perspective. Prof. von Hippel's main aim is to stop reprocessing and reduce stocks of separated plutonium, even if nuclear power generation continues, but Prof. Oguma claims that without an overall reassessment of the entire nuclear power policy it will be impossible to gain political consent for Prof. von Hippel's proposed onsite storage.

The economics is not as straightforward as it sounds either. While it is undoubtedly cheaper, in a purely mathematical sense, to simply dispose of spent fuel as waste, instead of reprocessing it and fabricating MOX fuel, the accounting systems of utilities make the more efficient alternative of direct disposal very difficult. At the moment, spent fuel is counted as an asset on utility balance sheets under the premise that it will become MOX fuel. If reprocessing is officially abandoned, all of the spent fuel 'assets' will become 'liabilities' and many utilities will be facing possible bankruptcy.

Prof. Oguma suggested that the only way to overcome all these political and economic barriers is for the government to disclose all information on nuclear power and reprocessing and to conduct an open public debate on how to proceed. If a public consensus is reached, based on all the scientific, technical and economic data available, then reprocessing should be stopped.

CNIC's Hajime Matsukubo pointed out that the Japanese government's accountability crisis was not just domestic, but international. Building up such large stocks of plutonium at huge cost and with no credible purpose inevitably makes neighboring countries suspect Japan's intentions. Indeed documents recently revealed show that the present Vice Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long been an advocate of Japan becoming a nuclear weapons state. Japan's opposition to President Obama's proposal that the US adopt a no first-use of nuclear weapons policy, was reported in the Japanese media. Thus Japan's credibility as a strong advocator of non-proliferation is already failing and the plan to separate even more plutonium at Rokkasho could easily provoke a regional nuclear arms race, destabilizing the region, just as hopes rise that the situation in North Korea may improve.

Mr. Matsukubo also pointed out that Japan is the only non-nuclear weapons state that is permitted to separate plutonium under the US-Japan Nuclear Cooperation (123) Agreement. This creates double standards which weaken the entire global non-proliferation regime. For example, Saudi Arabia is negotiating a 123 Agreement with the US and demands that it also be allowed to reprocess spent fuel 'like Japan.'

For all of the above safety, economic and non-proliferation reasons, it would seem that there is plenty of ammunition for the movement against reprocessing. Indeed, Mr. Matsukubo said that in many ways it should be easier to stop reprocessing than stop nuclear power generation. Why hasn't this happened? As well as the difficulties mentioned by Prof. Oguma, there is also the factor that the movement against reprocessing in Japan has not been as strong as the movement against nuclear power. Reprocessing seems like a more convoluted, more removed issue, perhaps difficult for people to grasp and focus on.

All speakers agreed that the movement against reprocessing must be strengthened. The first thing that must be done to achieve this is to raise awareness and understanding regarding this issue within the broader anti-nuclear movement (both power generation and weapons) and the general public. Providing accurate information on the nuclear fuel cycle in a format that people can understand is the vital first step. As many people as possible must be informed about the costs, the dangers and the alternatives. The movement must be strong enough to demand that governments and utilities disclose all data, engage in an open debate and commit to implementing the consensus which emerges.

Prof. Oguma said that he and many other activists in Japan were committed to conveying the messages of Fukushima to the larger world, and to contributing to international solidarity on ending nuclear power. This also includes understanding how other countries see Japan. The plutonium issue is one that has particularly strong international impacts and implications and by pursuing this present policy the Japanese government is only damaging Japan's international credibility, especially regarding non-proliferation.

The seminar concluded that, whether on an international level or a domestic one, the Japanese government must restore accountability and democracy, it must formulate a responsible nuclear policy that is demonstrably safe, economic and realistic and which has the consent of the people. Viable technical alternatives to reprocessing spent fuel are available but can only be implemented through raising awareness and a change in political will, which as a movement, we must focus on with added strength.

Originally published in Citizens Nuclear Information Center, Nuke Info Tokyo, No. 184, May/June 2018,