Group fails to report plans for plutonium

Kyodo

The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan has violated government policy by failing to compile a plan on how it intends to use the half ton of plutonium it expects to extract from spent fuel in fiscal 2012, sources said Saturday.

The deadline was March 31, when fiscal 2011 ended. Without a plan, Japan could come under international fire again for its blatant lack of transparency, given the risks of the plutonium being diverted for nuclear weapons use or terrorism.

Japan has around 30 tons of plutonium sitting around for nuclear power generation, but only a few kilograms are needed for a nuclear weapon.

At the end of 2009, Japan had the fifth-largest stores of plutonium for nonmilitary use, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In 2003, the Japan Atomic Energy Commission announced it would make annual disclosures of its plans for using extracted plutonium, in light of nuclear nonproliferation policy.

These include plans on which reactors will engage in plutonium-thermal power generation and for how long, as well as the amount of MOX, or plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel, the reactors will use.

When asked to comment on the utility group’s failure to submit its 2012 plutonium plan, a member of the commission termed it “not desirable.”

The extracted plutonium was originally intended for use in the experimental Monju fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture. But the problematic Monju, which can in theory produce more nuclear fuel than it consumes, has only proven to be a pipe dream so far.

This has clouded the outlook for Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle because the Monju was supposed to be its centerpiece. According to a source, the utility federation is being stymied by uncertainties over reactor restarts stirred up by the Fukushima No. 1 power plant disaster after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11 last year.

“We will disclose the plan by October or so, when the actual extraction of plutonium will take place,” a federation official said.

Plutonium-thermal power generation involves the use of MOX, which is made with weapons-grade plutonium extracted from spent fuel, and is an important pillar of Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling program.

The plutonium is extracted at Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.’s reprocessing plant in the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, which is currently on a trial run. It plans to reprocess 80 tons of spent fuel to extract about half a ton of plutonium by March next year.

In 2010, the federation said that by the end of March 2016, 5.5 to 6.5 tons of plutonium will be used each year at 16 to 18 of the reactors across Japan, but the viability of the project has been threatened by the Fukushima disaster.