Tag Archives: Rokkasho reprocessing plant

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

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

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