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Editorial: Gov’t should make steady efforts to increase transparency of plutonium reduction

  • July 19, 2018
  • , Nikkei , p. 2
  • JMH Translation

The Japan-U.S. nuclear power cooperation agreement was automatically extended upon the expiration of a 30-year contract after enforcement. This is an indispensable pact for Japan to promote its nuclear fuel cycle, but uncertainty lingers, as it can be annulled in six months after either Japan or the U.S. gives the other notification. Japan should increase the transparency of plutonium use and make steady efforts to reduce its plutonium stockpile to prevent the international community from harboring doubts.


The accord, which came into force in 1988, authorized the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from Japan’s nuclear power plants and the extraction of plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel. Japan is the only non-nuclear nation allowed to manufacture plutonium. This is an exceptional case.


Japan lags other industrialized nations in energy self-sufficiency. Thus the nuclear fuel cycle policy is of critical importance to Japan; the nation can’t afford to abandon it. Thus the extension of the Japan-U.S. nuclear power cooperation pact is welcome.


On the other hand, Japan faces many problems with the use of plutonium. Power utilities outsource the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from domestic nuclear power plants to the U.K and France. Japan’s domestic and overseas stockpiles of plutonium have swollen to 47 tons. Plutonium can be used in nuclear weapons. The international community is greatly concerned.


To ease international anxiety, Japan needs to carefully explain that it uses plutonium exclusively for civilian purposes and also provide an explanation of the current stockpiling situation and usage plans.


In the Basic Energy Plan endorsed by the cabinet early this month, the government stipulated for the first time that “Japan will work to slash its plutonium stockpile.” This can be noted as progress, but specific measures are still lacking.


The Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) will soon revise its guidelines for the use of plutonium. It plans to set a ceiling on Japan’s plutonium stockpiling, but it should come up with specific measures for reduction.


To begin with, the plutonium-thermal (pluthermal) method of power generation needs to be steadily implemented in order to use existing nuclear reactors for burning plutonium. The power industry plans to use 16-18 nuclear reactors for this purpose, but of those reactors that cleared safety inspections after the nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi power station, only four have been given the green light to handle pluthermal. To carry out pluthermal at reactors that will go online down the road, the government should lead efforts to seek local understanding. Cooperation among power utilities will also become necessary. A power company that has online reactors can accept plutonium from another firm if its reactors are still shut down, for example.


A reprocessing facility in the village of Rokkasho in Aomori Prefecture will go into operation in three years. After it becomes fully operational, plutonium output may surpass plutonium reduction. A review of the overall nuclear fuel cycle policy, which includes the reduction of the reprocessing capacity of the Rokkasho facility, is inevitable.   

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