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Plutonium and Japan’s Nuclear Waste Problem: International Scientists Call for an End to Plutonium Reprocessing and Closing the Rokkasho Plant
As Japan struggles with the ongoing accident at Fukushima Daiichi, another struggle continues - to shut down the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. Reprocessing, long favored by the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission, has proven a disasterously expensive failure at Rokkasho. Continuing with reprocessing through decommissioning would cost Japan approximately 10 billion yen. Putting an end to their reprocessing goals would save them 4 billion yen. Reprocessing is a direct conduit to proliferation, producing weapons useable plutonium.
Piers Williamson l Asia Pacific Journal Japan Focus June 11, 2012
On 31 May 2012, Professor Mizukami Tetsuo (Institute for Peace and Community Studies, Rikkyo University) hosted two lectures on the problems associated with reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. The speakers were Professor Frank von Hippel1 (Princeton University), former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology and co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), and Professor Gordon MacKerron,2 Director and Head of SPRU (Science and Technology Policy Research) at the University of Sussex.
With recent revelations in the Japanese Press3 that the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) had been organizing secret panels, solely comprised of nuclear power advocates, to produce reports recommending a ‘concurrent’ policy of direct disposal and reprocessing to preserve the Rokkasho fuel reprocessing plant, the lectures were timely. Prof. von Hippel gave the first talk describing the global situation of plutonium reprocessing, whilst Prof. MacKerron outlined the background behind the UK’s decision to abandon reprocessing.
Prof. von Hippel started his presentation by describing the IPFM4 and its work. The IPFM was established in 2006 as an independent body dedicated to arms control and nonproliferation. It focuses on the management of nuclear materials. Two types of material pose a particular problem, plutonium and highly enriched uranium. There are 500,000 kilograms of plutonium in existence globally, which is enough for approximately 100,000 nuclear weapons. Half of this was produced during the Cold War in weapons programs, whereas the other half was produced for civilian use in reactors. Civilian-use plutonium was produced in the belief that uranium 235 was scarce and so there was a pressing need to build new reactors that would use uranium more efficiently. These new reactors were the plutonium breeder reactors. About 1% of the waste produced by normal reactors is plutonium.
Breeder reactors were designed to use plutonium-239 (pu-239) as fuel in a process that would convert readily available uranium-238 into pu-239, which could then be used for refueling thereby replacing uranium-235. The plutonium produced by reactors is mostly pu-239 but it also contains heavier plutonium isotopes (e.g. pu-240) caused by neutron capture on pu-239. Prof. von Hippel noted that although power-reactor plutonium contains more pu-240 than weapons-grade plutonium, it is still weapon usable without additional processing. In the case of the Nagasaki bomb design, the yield would likely be reduced, but that is not true for modern designs.
Whilst distinctions are, therefore, made between civilian-use and weapons-grade plutonium, Prof. von Hippel pointed out that India used civilian-use plutonium in 1974 for a so-called ‘peaceful explosion’. Furthermore, reprocessing technology spread largely due to interest in weapons manufacturing. For example, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Taiwan all pursued reprocessing technology due to military objectives. Interest in reprocessing was so great in the 1970s that it was thought that every county would attempt it. The thinking was that nuclear power use would expand and so there would only be enough uranium for 500 GWe (gigawatt electrical) whereas demand would reach 2000 GWe by 2000. But this did not happen and there is no shortage of uranium...
Some very good news to come out of Cumbria in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Sellafield will close their highly contested MOX plant. A very long, and bitter, battle will finally end in a quiet success. The cracks are widening in the nuclear fuel cyle. The diry underside has been exposed and people are starting to realize the true cost they are paying. SMP may be disapointed in the loss of 600 jobs, but shutting down Sellafield's MOX plant will save many more lives in the long run. The nuclear dominos are beginning to fall. May this be one of many.
Business Green l Jessica Shankleman 3 August, 2011
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is to close its Sellafield mixed oxide fuel plant (SMP) in Cumbria because of the disaster at Japan'sFukushima nuclear plant in March.
The NDA announced today that it will close the plant, which employs 600 people and processes plutonium into reusable fuel "at the earliest opportunity".
NDA spokesman Bill Hamilton toldBusinessGreen that SMP's only customers were Japanese developers, many of which face uncertainty as a result of the disaster in March.
Britain ramps up reprocessing at Sellafield, which looks to double the discharges of radioactive waste into the Irish Sea.
There is no excuse for reprocessing. It is wasteful, expensive, inefficient as a form of fuel production, and extremely dangerous. Dumping yet more plutonium, caesium-137, and cobalt-60 into the Irish Sea puts Britain in violation of "its commitment to "progressive and substantial reductions of discharges" under the Oslo-Paris (Ospar) convention," according to a report by Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (Core).