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Editorial: Japan should not pursue nuke fuel reprocessing despite U.S. OK

  • January 19, 2018
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 1:00 p.m.
  • English Press

Japan’s agreement with the United States on bilateral cooperation in civilian uses of nuclear power will be automatically renewed when its 30-year term expires in July.


As neither of the two governments sought to renegotiate the deal half a year prior to the expiration date, the current agreement will remain in place as is.


All of Japan’s nuclear power projects, from nuclear power plants to research and development projects concerning atomic energy, are based on this agreement.


The most notable feature of the pact is that it allows Japan to reprocess spent fuel from nuclear power plants to extract plutonium.


But the fact that the agreement allows Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel should not be used by the Japanese government as a pretext for pursuing a reprocessing program.


Japan already has enough plutonium to make some 6,000 atomic bombs similar to the one dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945.

Japan has no plausible plan to reduce its stockpile.


The nuclear reprocessing plant the Japanese power industry is building in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, should not be brought online.


The situation requires fresh debate on the project to determine whether the construction should be terminated.


In the negotiations for the previous revision to the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, Tokyo focused on persuading Washington to grant it the right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.


At that time, the Japanese government believed the resource-poor Japan could solve its energy supply problem by pursuing a nuclear fuel recycling program based on technology to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel and burn it in fast breeder reactors, which are supposed to generate more fissile material than they consume.


It has become clear in the past three decades, however, that nuclear fuel recycling is neither safe nor economical. Most industrial nations have abandoned this idea.


In 2015, Japan decided to decommission the Monju prototype fast breeder reactor. The decision has effectively destroyed Japan’s hopes of establishing a nuclear fuel recycling system.


Japan currently has some 47 tons of plutonium including amounts extracted in Britain and France for Japan under reprocessing contracts.


The Japanese government and the power industry entertain the idea of mixing such plutonium with uranium for burning in ordinary reactors. But most of the operable nuclear reactors in Japan have been offline since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.


Under the U.N. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Japan is the only country without nuclear arms that is allowed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.


Japan’s privilege is conditioned on its commitment to using plutonium only for peaceful purposes. As things now stand, it is difficult for Japan to dispel international suspicion about its intentions concerning the massive stockpile of plutonium no matter how strongly it may stress its commitment to peaceful use of the material.


The Cabinet Office’s Atomic Energy Commission has started considering the adoption of an avowed policy of extracting only the amount of plutonium the country will actually use.


But this is a seriously delayed response to international criticism based on an unreasonably optimistic assessment of the situation, which argues strongly against any attempt by Japan to extract fresh plutonium.


Japan should start serious and concrete efforts to reduce its stockpile of plutonium in line with its international promise not to hold any surplus plutonium.


Transferring the material to Britain and France and asking the United States to develop a viable disposable method are ideas that merit serious consideration.


The reprocessing plant in Rokkasho was originally scheduled to be completed in 1997. But the time frame was moved back again late last year, by some three more years to the first half of fiscal 2021, in the 23rd postponement.


The project has been plagued by a slew of problems and troubles and the estimated construction cost has nearly quadrupled from the original estimate to 2.9 trillion yen ($26.12 billion).


What should be done with the project is obvious.

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