RISLEY, ENGLAND – Britain can reuse around 17 tons of plutonium extracted from Japan’s spent nuclear fuel on condition that Japan provides funding for the reprocessing of the material, which could be used to produce atomic weapons, a British nuclear expert has indicated.
Adrian Simper of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, a body linked to the British government, said in a recent interview at the NDA’s office in Risley that weapons-grade plutonium taken from Japanese spent fuel and kept in Britain could be reprocessed as mixed oxide fuel and reused in the country to power reactors.
British government sources also said they have conveyed to the Japanese government their readiness to reuse plutonium from Japan under appropriate commercial terms.
Since 1969, Japanese utilities have entrusted Britain and France with reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from their nuclear plants to produce MOX fuel, which had been considered a key part of Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling policy, which remains in place despite the Fukushima meltdown disaster and widespread domestic opposition to continued use of atomic energy. Britain has so far reprocessed around 4,000 tons of Japanese spent nuclear fuel.
MOX fuel is made from plutonium and leftover uranium in spent nuclear fuel.
The strategy and technology director at the NDA, which is tasked with decommissioning civil nuclear facilities and managing nuclear waste, said Britain is prepared to take over the ownership of plutonium from foreign spent fuel, “provided the commercial terms are right.”
“The amount of plutonium that gets added to the U.K.’s holdings is relatively small, and there’s a charge for that service. It’s very much a win-win solution,” Simper said. “I think it’s important that we continue to talk to Japan.”
The Fukushima crisis has prompted Japan to weigh a new strategy to reduce its reliance on nuclear energy to zero by the 2030s, but the country still maintains the goal of continuing to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.
The inconsistency in Japan’s stance has raised concern about nuclear proliferation, as the use of surplus plutonium generated in reprocessing remains unspecified.
At present, Japan has 44 tons of plutonium in the country and abroad. Of that amount, 30 tons is fissile material that could be used to produce about 5,000 nuclear weapons.
As of late last year, Britain kept around 90 tons of domestically generated plutonium and 28 tons of plutonium from other countries. Simper formerly worked for British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., which was in charge of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from Japan.