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Issues with plutonium fuel remain even though Rokkasho reprocessing plant has been approved

By Kazunari Hanawa and Takashi Tsuji


Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited’s fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori, passed the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s safety review on July 29. The plant has thus moved one step closer to resuming operations, but many issues remain such as aging facilities and testing of equipment. The international community takes a strict view of plutonium possession. The Japanese government has asked the U.K. for cooperation, but the conversation has not moved forward.


Rokkasho Mayor Mamoru Toda welcomed the NRA’s approval in a comment on July 29: “This is the first step towards completion. This is a happy occasion.” Approval does not mean that the road to resumption of operations has been cleared. The construction of the plant started in 1993. Many of the facilities and equipment are aging and incomplete. Safety inspections would take an enormous amount of work, and it is expected that more time will be needed for completion.


The handling of plutonium is difficult in particular. The nuclear fuel cycle is the centerpiece of Japan’s energy policy. In the nuclear fuel cycle, spent fuel is reprocessed for reuse in nuclear power plants. Plutonium is produced in the reprocessing process.


Japan is the only country without nuclear weapons to have nuclear fuel reprocessing, based on the Agreement for Cooperation between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Japan Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. The U.S. acknowledges Japan’s reprocessing of nuclear fuel for use only as fuel for nuclear power plants, based on Japan’s principle that it will “not possess plutonium without a specific purpose.”


Currently, there are no plans for consumption of plutonium fuel. Monju, a fast breeder nuclear reactor that would use plutonium fuel, has been closed. Shikoku Electric Power’s Ikata nuclear power plant 3 uses plutonium fuel, but an injunction by the Hiroshima High Court has halted its operations. Construction has not been resumed on J-POWER’s Oma nuclear power plant, which was expected to consume a lot of fuel.


According to the white paper on nuclear power, Japan possesses about 45.7 tons of plutonium as of the end of 2018. There are 21.2 tons of plutonium in the U.K., to which Japan has consigned reprocessing. There are also 15.5 tons in France and 9 tons in Japan. If the Rokkasho plant resumes operations in fiscal 2021, it will annually produce 7 tons at full capacity.


The U.S. requested Japan to lay out a clear plan to decrease plutonium in exchange for extending the nuclear energy agreement. The Japanese government clearly stated in its Strategic Energy Plan that it will decrease plutonium possession.


The Japanese government considered handing over its plutonium to the U.K. to resolve the situation. If the two countries come to an agreement, the plutonium stored in Japan will be handed over to the U.K. so that Japan can decrease its holdings. High-ranking Japanese and U.K. officials discussed the issue after Japan’s energy plan was approved by the Cabinet. The U.K. replied that it already has much plutonium in its possession and needs to decide on how to handle its own plutonium first. The discussion has not moved forward.


If the situation does not change, Japan must operate the reprocessing plant at a minimum or halt operations. Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL) is founded on investments from major power companies. If the plant cannot be operated at full capacity, the business will not be profitable, which will then affect the power companies. On July 29, JNFL CEO Naohiro Masuda said that JNFL will follow the “(operations) plan that the government formulates.”


The total cost of the reprocessing project could reach over 14 trillion yen, including decommissioning costs. Costs borne of the government’s lack of planning is passed on to the consumer in the form of electricity costs. The Japanese government should seriously discuss whether there is a need to continue with the nuclear power cycle.

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