Tag Archives: plutonium stockpiles

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

What to Do with 56 000 Drums of Nuclear Waste: Japan

At least 1.9 trillion yen ($17.12 billion) will be needed for the planned scrapping of 79 nuclear facilities, including the failed Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, according to the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA).

However, the JAEA’s estimate, released on Dec. 26, 2018 does not include maintenance expenses for the facilities nor costs to deal with leftover uranium and plutonium, meaning the actual tally could increase by hundreds of billions of yen.  State subsidies account for the bulk of the JAEA’s budget, so taxpayers will likely foot most of the bill.  The agency plans to shut down 79 of its 89 nuclear facilities, including research reactors and test buildings, over 60 to 70 years due to aging and the huge costs needed for their continued operations under stricter safety standards.

According to the JAEA’s estimate, the cost to decommission the Tokai spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Ibaraki Prefecture will be 770 billion yen.  But the overall cost would reach nearly 1 trillion yen if expenses on dealing with highly radioactive liquid waste, which is left after plutonium is extracted from spent fuel rods at the plant, are included.

The problem-plagued Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, cost taxpayers more than 1 trillion yen ($8.82 billion) despite running for only 250 days during its two-decade operation. ..But the JAEA currently has no plan on how to handle plutonium stored at the facilities. In addition, no decision has been made on what to do with radioactive waste from the 79 facilities that could fill more than 560,000 200-liter drums.

Excerpt JAEA: Closing 79 nuclear facilities will cost at least 1.9 trillion yen

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

Breathing in Plutonium Dust: Hanford

The Energy Department project to tear down the Plutonium Finish Plant at the Hanford Site was halted in mid-December 2017 after radioactive dust was discovered far off the plant site. T As crews demolished a shuttered nuclear weapons plant during 2017 in central Washington, specks of plutonium were swept up in high gusts and blown miles across a desert plateau above the Columbia River.  The releases at the Department of Energy cleanup site spewed unknown amounts of plutonium dust into the environment, coated private automobiles with the toxic heavy metal and dispensed lifetime internal radioactive doses to 42 work

The contamination events went on for nearly 12 months, getting progressively worse before the project was halted in mid-December. Now, state health and environmental regulators, Energy Department officials and federal safety investigators are trying to figure out what went wrong and who is responsible.

The events at the Hanford Site, near the Tri-Cities area of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, vividly demonstrate the consequences when a radioactive cleanup project spirals out of control.

The mishap occurred at one of the nation’s most radioactively contaminated buildings, known as the Plutonium Finishing Plant. The factory, which opened in 1949 a few miles from the Columbia River, supplied plutonium for thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons before it was shut down in 1989.
The exposures from the plutonium releases in 2017 were minuscule bestimated to be a small fraction of the background radiation that every human gets from nature. But unlike cosmic radiation or radon gas, plutonium can lodge itself inside the body and deliver tissue damaging alpha particles over a lifetime…. As workers removed equipment to prepare for walls to be torn down, air monitoring alarms sounded almost every day, he said. Workers were subjected to repeated nasal smears to determine if they had breathed plutonium dust, he said….Seven employee automobiles were contaminated at the plant site, according to a Jan. 9, 2018 letter from the state Department of Ecology to Doug Shoop, the federal site chief at Hanford… The demolition, costing $57 million, was being conducted by one of the nation’s largest engineering firms, CH2M, a unit of Texas-based Jacobs Engineering. CH2M is now under federal investigation for the releases, according to a letter sent by the Energy Department’s enforcement office in late March 2018…

In March 2018, the company released a preliminary analysis [pdf] of the contamination and blamed it on a half dozen factors, including a “fixative” that was supposed to bind the dust but was too diluted to work properly and a decision to accelerate demolition when the contamination seemed to be stable.  The Energy Department plan for the demolition originally required the contractor to remove debris as it accumulated. But in January 2017, just before the first releases, officials authorized CH2M to allow the debris to pile up, according to a monthly site report by an inspector for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent agency.  In fact, workers at the plant said the demolition site was ringed by 8-foot-tall piles of radioactive debris with little to prevent dust from blowing off

The problems at the Plutonium Finishing Plant were not an isolated event at Hanford, which has struggled with its cleanup for more than a decade.
Work was stopped five years ago on key parts of a $16.8-billion waste treatment plant that is supposed to turn 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge into glass. Technical deficiencies in its design are still being studied, while delays mount. Several years ago, the Energy Department pushed back the full startup by 17 years to 2039, though it hopes to begin treating some less radioactive waste by 2022….In 2017, a tunnel that stored railroad cars full of contaminated equipment collapsed. The Energy Department pumped the 358-foot long tunnel full of a concrete mixture. A decision is pending about what to do with a second storage tunnel 1,688 feet long.

The state attorney general, along with Hanford Challenge and a union, is suing the Energy Department for venting noxious gases from underground waste tanks over recent years, sickening workers.

Smith, the Ecology manager, said a lot of cleanup progress has been made at Hanford. Hundreds of buildings have been torn down. Much of the soil along the banks of the Columbia River has been cleaned up enough for any future use. And the site’s nine nuclear reactors have been put in stable condition…

One of those facilities, known as 324 Building,[Chemical Materials Engineering Laboratory] was used to extract plutonium from spent fuel, said Robert Alvarez, a former assistant secretary of Energy and a longtime critic of the cleanup. The facility has civilian waste from Germany, sent as part of a research project, as well as large amounts of radioactive waste that was placed in unlined burial pits, he said. Records of what lies in the pits were destroyed in 1988, he said.

Excerpts from RALPH VARTABEDIAN, Contamination from a nuclear cleanup forced a shutdown. Investigators want to know who is responsible, LA Times, Apr. 16, 2018

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.

Threshold Nuclear Weapon States: Japan

See also Security Strategies of Threshold Nuclear Weapon States

Japan…had 54 reactors in operation before the Fukushima accident..,,. After the accident, which was of unprecedented scale, Japan promptly decided to stop all remaining nuclear power reactors in the country, but was not able to phase out nuclear energy like Germany. Instead, operation of these halted reactors has resumed since Shinzo Abe returned to the Prime Minister’s office in spite of massive protests and the objection of the majority of the public; Sendai 1 Reactor in Kagoshima Prefecture was restarted on August 11, 2015 and Sendai 2 Reactor successively went online on October 15, 2015….

Japan is the only country in the world that is permitted to reprocess its spent fuel, which means it can possess plutonium — a weapon-usable material…Originally, Japan envisioned fast breeder reactors (FBR) for generating electricity with plutonium separated from reprocessing. Japan’s sodium-cooled FBR Monju, which is supposed to produce more fuel than it consumes and thus is regarded as a dream reactor, has never been realized mainly because of insuperable technical problems, despite astronomical investment that exceeded 1 trillion Japanese Yen….

Meanwhile, it has never been easy to start up the reprocessing plant in Rokkasho Village, Aomori Prefecture. This reprocessing plant was initially planned to start its operation in 2000, but completion of reprocessing plant construction has been delayed more than twenty times. Moreover, the construction cost has surged up to approximately 22 billion USD, almost four times higher than the original cost planned back in 1989. And on November 16, 2015, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL), the operator of reprocessing plant, announced that the operation of the reprocessing plant is postponed again to as late as September 2018. JNFL’s President Kenji Kudo reported that a separate plant for producing MOX fuel had also been delayed by early 2019….

Nonetheless, the Japanese government still shows reluctance to withdraw from reprocessing with the excuse of its scarcity of natural resources. Without a technical way out, however, the plutonium stockpile of Japan continues to rise. As for July 2015, its plutonium stockpile reached 47.8 metric tons – 10.8 tons in Japan, 16.3 tons in France, and 20.7 tons in the United Kingdom –  the fifth largest next to the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and the United States. Considering the fact that Japan is not a nuclear-armed state, this number is obviously an outlier. For instance, Germany, which also does not possess nuclear weapons, only had 3 tons of separated plutonium at the end of 2013…. [B]oth Rokkasho Village and Aomori Prefecture intimidated the central government into adhering to [opening the Rokkasho reprocessing plant]. [T]hey contended that the more than 3,000 tons of spent fuel in the area should otherwise be transferred back to the reactors where the spent fuel was originally produced. This alternative however, is politically and technically implausible because the host communities of reactors also expect spent fuel to be removed from their backyards almost immediately…Japan’s unusual surplus of plutonium creates tremendous political pressures for the Japanese government. Japan’s neighbors like China and South Korea often become suspicious of Japan’s real reasons for having that amount of plutonium.

Furthermore, Japan’s recent performance triggered a backlash even from the IAEA, whose head is a former Japanese diplomat; 640 kilogram of unused plutonium was not included in Japan’s annual reports to IAEA in 2012 and 2013. IAEA experts criticized this as “inappropriate omission” though JAEC explained that the stock was part of MOX fuel stored in a reactor that was not in operation during that period of time, and accordingly assumed exempt from reporting requirements. Japan has insisted that it would be impossible to inappropriately separate plutonium at the reprocessing plant in Rokkasho Village under the IAEA’s 24-hour surveillance. However, surveillance burdens for safeguards have aggravated simply because of the absolute amount of stockpile.

Excerpts from  Eunjung Lim, Japan’s Nuclear Trilemma,  Jan. 19, 2016