Editorial: Japan should end its pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle

Japan is under the stern gaze of the United States and the international community for its growing stockpile of plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel. The Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) has come up with a new plan to reduce this stockpile, which includes such measures as setting limits on nuclear fuel reprocessing and extracting only the amount of plutonium needed to run nuclear power plants in use.

Following the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power station in 2011, a facility operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, many of the nation’s nuclear plants that were designed to use plutonium have been shuttered. Can JAEC’s new plan really have much effect on reducing the stockpile and solving this problem?

Reducing the stockpile of plutonium is an important challenge because plutonium can be used to produce nuclear weapons. Currently, Japan holds about 47 tons of plutonium, inside and outside the country, an amount that could create 6,000 Nagasaki bombs.

In principle, plutonium production is prohibited in order to prevent it from being diverted for the making of nuclear weapons. However, since Japan lacks natural resources, the Japan-U.S. nuclear pact, officially known as the Agreement for Cooperation Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Japan Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, permits Japan to recycle nuclear fuel by extracting plutonium from spent fuel. Japan is the only non-nuclear nation that is allowed to engage in spent fuel reprocessing.

Nevertheless, there are growing demands, even from the United States, for Japan to reduce its stockpile of plutonium because possessing surplus plutonium with no prospect for its use will raise the risk of this stockpile becoming the target of nuclear terrorism. It may also pose the risk of proliferation if other nations point to Japan as an example and begin to stockpile their own plutonium.

The Japan-U.S. nuclear pact is expected to be renewed automatically this month. We can easily discern JAEC’s intention behind the new plan: They want to fend off growing criticism from the international community by demonstrating their willingness to work on the problem prior to this renewal.

Another pillar is the cooperation among the nation’s electric power companies. It is proposed that the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Chubu Electric Power Company, which have made little progress toward resuming the operations of nuclear plants under their control, transfer their plutonium to the Shikoku Electric Power Company and the Kyushu Electric Power Company as some of their nuclear plants have already restarted operations. However, the power companies have responded tepidly to the idea and its realization is uncertain.

Originally, Japan’s possession of plutonium began under the blueprint of the nuclear fuel cycle program. This program sought to obtain an infinite supply of energy by extracting plutonium from spent fuel and increasing it by means of a fast-breeder reactor.

The Monju fast-breeder reactor was the linchpin of the program. However, it was mostly idle after becoming operational and the decision was made in December 2016 to decommission it. Although a string of accidents and scandals involving cover-ups at the facility were the main reason for this closure, we might say that the failure of the Monju reactor itself is a symbol of the failure of the government’s broader nuclear energy policy.

Moreover, it is clear that the stockpile of plutonium will only continue to grow once the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture, which is due to be completed in 2021, starts operation.

Despite such circumstances, the Japanese government decided to join the development of France’s ASTRID high speed demonstration reactor when the Monju closure was finalized. In this way, ASTRID has become the centerpiece of its plan to continue the nuclear fuel recycling program. This is appalling.

Many advanced nations have phased out their own fast-reactor projects. France, too, has decided to sharply scale down its ASTRID fast-reactor project. It is time that Japan reconsidered the whole program.

It is irresponsible of the government, with respect to both the Japanese people and the international community, to continue pouring enormous sums of money into the uncertain nuclear fuel cycle and amassing greater amounts of plutonium. Japan should recognize that there is a limit to makeshift reduction measures and that it is time to stop clinging to the existing cycle and to thoroughly review the nation’s entire nuclear energy policy.

(Originally published on July 1, 2018)