TOKYO — A government nuclear panel on Tuesday decided to update its basic principles over the civil use of Japan’s plutonium to eventually move toward reducing stockpiles of the material that can be used to make nuclear weapons.
Japan upholds a policy of reprocessing nuclear reactor’s spent fuel and reusing extracted plutonium and uranium as reactor fuel. In the basic principles on plutonium management adopted in 2003, the country pledged not to possess plutonium without specified purposes.
But the Japan Atomic Energy Commission wants to further clarify the position, amid uncertainty over prospects for the use of stockpiled plutonium following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster.
“Saying (that we won’t hold plutonium) without specified purposes is somewhat vague, so we think there is a need to consider updating (the principles),” Yoshiaki Oka, chairman of the three-member commission, said at its meeting.
In reviewing the principles, the commission plans to draw on the spent fuel management policy adopted by France, in which fuel is reprocessed based on prospective plutonium consumption. The review may finish by the end of the year, a government official said.
Japan is held accountable for the peaceful use of its plutonium, especially as it is the only non-nuclear weapons state under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that possesses commercial uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies, according to the commission.
Japan currently has about 47 tons of plutonium, enough to make thousands of nuclear bombs. A large portion of the quantity was created through outsourced reprocessing in France and Britain.
The recovered plutonium has been consumed by using it as plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel, known as MOX fuel, and burning it in reactors.
But there is concern the amount of stockpiled plutonium could increase once a fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho in Aomori Prefecture starts operating.
A series of problems has led to repeated delays in completing the plant, which is designed to extract about 8 tons of plutonium by reprocessing up to 800 tons of spent fuel per year.
Before the Fukushima crisis, nuclear power plant operators were planning to consume up to 6.5 tons of plutonium annually as MOX fuel in 16 to 18 reactors by March 2016. But the plan has been up in the air, with the country seeing slow progress in restarting reactors after the Fukushima disaster amid safety concerns among the public.