Tag Archives: plutonium disposition

Japan’s Nuclear Bombs

On May 13, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority announced that the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, had met new safety standards created after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami….The Rokkasho plant is a 3.8 million square meter facility designed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s nuclear reactors.  Construction began in 1993. Once in operation, the plant’s maximum daily reprocessing capacity will be a cumulative total of 800 tons per year.  During reprocessing, uranium and plutonium are extracted, and the Rokkasho plant is expected to generate up to eight tons of plutonium annually.

Both are then turned into a mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel at a separate MOX fabrication plant, also located in Rokkasho, for use in commercial reactors. Construction on the MOX facility began in 2010 and it’s expected to be completed in 2022.  Japan had originally envisioned MOX fuel powering between 16 and 18 of the nation’s 54 commercial reactors that were operating before 2011, in place of conventional uranium.  But only four reactors are using it out of the current total of nine officially in operation. MOX fuel is more expensive than conventional uranium fuel, raising questions about how much reprocessed fuel the facilities would need, or want.

The Rokkasho reprocessing plant can store up to 3,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s power plants on-site. It’s nearly full however, with over 2,900 tons of high-level waste already waiting to be reprocessed.

Why has it taken until now for the Rokkasho plant to secure approval from the nuclear watchdog?   Decades of technical problems and the new safety standards for nuclear power that went into effect after the 2011 triple meltdown at the power plant in Fukushima Prefecture have delayed Rokkasho’s completion date 24 times so far. It took six years for the plant to win approval under the post-3/11 safety standards…By the time of the NRA announcement on May 13, 2020, the price tag for work at the Rokkasho plant had reached nearly ¥14 trillion.

Japan is the only non-nuclear weapons state pursuing reprocessing. But as far back as the 1970s, as Japan was debating a nuclear reprocessing program, the United States became concerned about a plant producing plutonium that could be used for a nuclear weapons program.  The issue was raised at a Feb. 1, 1977, meeting between U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale and Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda.  “Reprocessing facilities which could produce weapons grade material are simply bomb factories,” noted a declassified U.S. State Department cable on the meeting. “We want to cooperate (with Japan) to keep the problem under control.”

The U.S. oppose the Rokkasho plant’s construction in 1993, following an agreement in 1988 between the two countries on nuclear cooperation. ..The U.S.-Japan nuclear agreement meant the U.S. would give advance consent for Japan to send spent nuclear fuel to the United Kingdom and France — states with nuclear weapons — for reprocessing until Rokkasho was running at full-scale.

Currently, Japan has nearly 45 tons of plutonium stockpiled, including 9 tons held by domestic utilities. Another 21.2 tons is in the United Kingdom and France is holding 15.5 tons under overseas reprocessing contracts.

Thus, Japan finds itself caught between promises to the international community to reduce its plutonium stockpile through reprocessing at Rokkasho, and questions about whether MOX is still an economically, and politically, viable resource — given the expenses involved and the availability of other fossil fuel and renewable energy resources.

Excerpts from Aomori’s Rokkasho nuclear plant gets green light but hurdles remain, Japan Times, May 31, 2020

Where to Go? Plutonium from Nuclear Weapons

The lack of space at the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository is among several challenges identified by the National Academy of Sciences who is looking at the viability of disposing tons of weapons-grade plutonium.  The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a preliminary report on the U.S. government’s plan, which calls for diluting 34 metric tons of plutonium and shipping it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southern New Mexico.

The disposal of plutonium has to do with a  pact signed between the United States and Russia. That pact was based on a proposal for turning the surplus plutonium into fuel that could be used for commercial nuclear reactors. That project, beset by years of delays and cost overruns, was cancelled in early 2018.

If the plan were to be approved, the Energy Department has estimated that it would take 31 years to dilute and dispose of all 34 metric tons. The work would involve four sites around the U.S. — the Pantex Plant in West Texas, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

The panel of scientists found that the agency doesn’t have a well-developed plan for reaching out to those host sites and stressed that public trust would have to be developed and maintained over the life of the project.

Excerpts from Scientists: Capacity at US nuclear waste dump a challenge, Associated Press, Nov. 30, 2018

Japan’s weapon: the plutonium exception

Japan’s nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. — the pillar of Tokyo’s nuclear energy policy — renewed automatically on July 15, 2018  after the current pact, which took effect in 1988, expire  The agreement allows Japan to be the sole non-nuclear-weapons state to use plutonium for peaceful purposes and underlies the country’s policy of recycling spent nuclear fuel.

But the renewal comes at a time when Japan’s “plutonium exception” is increasingly under scrutiny…Japan’s neighbors have cried foul over Japan’s plutonium exception. China has said it creates a path for Japan to obtain nuclear weapons. South Korea, which also has a nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S., has pressed Washington hard to be granted similar freedom on fuel reprocessing.  Countries such as Saudi Arabia that are looking to develop their own nuclear programs have also protested….Resolving the inconsistent treatment afforded Japan’s plutonium stockpile would make it easier for the United States to convince Pyongyang to give up reprocessing capabilities as part of its denuclearization. On July 3, 2018, Japan’s cabinet approved a new basic energy plan that includes reducing plutonium holdings, aiming to assuage American concerns…

So far, the U.S. has not called on Japan to abandon its plutonium entirely, or to speed up its reduction. And there is little chance the U.S. will end the cooperation agreement, as “Japan’s nuclear technology is indispensable to the American nuclear industry,” according to a Japanese government source.

Excerpts from YUKIO TAJIMA, Japan’s ‘plutonium exception’ under fire as nuclear pact extended, NIkkei, July 14, 2018

Threshold Nuclear Weapon States

Nuclear plutonium Live

South Carolina is suing the U.S. government to recover $100 million in fines it says the Department of Energy owes the state for failing to remove one metric ton of plutonium stored there.  The lawsuit was filed on August 7, 2017.

Congress approved fines of $1 million per day for the first 100 days of each year through 2021, beginning 2016, if the weapons-grade plutonium was not removed from the Savannah River Site at the state’s border with Georgia, the attorney general’s office said.   The federal government cannot break its obligations and “leave South Carolina as the permanent dumping ground for weapons-grade plutonium” said in the complaint.

Built in the 1950s, the U.S.-owned Savannah River Site processes and stores nuclear materialss.  A U.S. treaty with Russia in 2000 [The Plutonium Disposition Agreement]* required each country to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, left over from the Cold War.

The United States began building a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility, known as the MOX project, at the Savannah River Site to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium by mixing it with uranium to form safer fuel pellets for use in commercial nuclear reactors.  But the project is years overdue and billions over budget, and the technology for the new fuel fabrication is not fully developed. Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2016 pulled out of the plutonium pact amid rising tensions over Ukraine and Syria.  The Trump administration proposed in the fiscal year 2018 budget to scrap the project and pursue diluting the plutonium and disposing it underground, an alternative called for by the Obama administration.

Excerpts from   Harriet McLeod, South Carolina seeks $100 million from U.S. over plutonium removal, Reuters,  Aug. 9, 2017

*through which the United States and Russia agreed to immobilize 68 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.