Japan’s Plutonium Plan Hits New, Local Obstacles

Activists protest the arrival of mixed-oxide fuel at a Japanese nuclear power plant last June. New, local steps against the possible use of MOX fuel in Japan could complicate efforts by Tokyo to justify increased production of plutonium, an expert said.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
April 10, 2014, 10:52 a.m.

Ja­pan’s case for stock­pil­ing plutoni­um risks be­ing un­der­cut by new, loc­al moves to stop the na­tion’s power plants from run­ning on the bomb-us­able ma­ter­i­al.

Ja­pan­ese com­munity of­fi­cials de­scribed new leg­al steps in op­pos­ing the use of mixed-ox­ide fuel — a plutoni­um-urani­um blend con­sidered po­ten­tially more haz­ard­ous than oth­er re­act­or ma­ter­i­al — as Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe’s gov­ern­ment pre­pared to au­thor­ize the first re­act­iv­a­tion of atom­ic sites since the 2011 Fukushi­ma plant dis­aster. The city of Hakod­ate last week sued to stop work on a nearby MOX fuel re­act­or, and Shizuoka pre­fec­ture’s gov­ernor said he wants to re­verse his pre­de­cessor’s ap­prov­al of its use.

The moves came as Abe’s ad­min­is­tra­tion pre­pared as soon as Fri­day to fi­nal­ize an en­ergy policy call­ing for the sep­ar­a­tion of ad­di­tion­al plutoni­um from nuc­le­ar waste, the New York Times re­por­ted. This ties in with the planned launch of the Rokkasho re­pro­cessing fa­cil­ity, which could gen­er­ate yet more plutoni­um on top of 9 tons it has stock­piled thus far, enough to power 2,000 nuc­le­ar arms.

One non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ex­pert said pub­lic op­pos­i­tion to MOX fuel is a re­l­at­ively re­cent de­vel­op­ment in Ja­pan. Re­l­at­ively few Ja­pan­ese re­act­ors are slated to run on the ma­ter­i­al, and the new loc­al steps could fur­ther un­der­mine the case for Rokkasho’s launch, Henry Sokol­ski, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Policy Edu­ca­tion Pro­ject in Wash­ing­ton, told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire on Tues­day.

“There really is no prac­tic­al way to ir­ra­di­ate large quant­it­ies of the sur­plus plutoni­um any­time soon, with the re­act­ors they have or are plan­ning,” said Sokol­ski. “Giv­en how much plutoni­um they already have, plus what they in­tend to pro­duce, the idea that you can elim­in­ate these plutoni­um stocks in re­act­ors is pre­pos­ter­ous.”

He also noted China’s vo­cal op­pos­i­tion to any in­creased Ja­pan­ese plutoni­um pro­duc­tion.

Cor­rec­tion: This art­icle was up­dated to more ac­cur­ately char­ac­ter­ize the plutoni­um-sep­ar­a­tion com­pon­ent of Ja­pan’s Rokkasho fa­cil­ity and to in­clude ad­di­tion­al ex­plan­a­tion by Henry Sokol­ski.

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