Still dealing with the huge clean up after the Fukushima crisis and debating the future use of nuclear energy, the government now faces another conundrum — what to do with 16 tons of its plutonium sitting in France after being reprocessed there.
The question will be among the issues that come under the spotlight on Thursday and Friday as nuclear proliferation experts meet with lawmakers and government officials in Tokyo.
With all reactors shut down in the wake of the nuclear meltdowns at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 plant, Japan is currently unable to take fuel made from the plutonium and could be forced to find other countries to use it.
The matter has taken on greater urgency as Areva, the French nuclear company that owns the La Hague reprocessing facility holding the plutonium in western Normandy, faces billions of dollars of losses.
“In this whole mess (at Areva) we have a huge amount of Japanese plutonium,” said Mycle Schneider, an independent energy consultant, adding that Japan must resolve the problem sooner rather than later.
An Areva spokesman said the company has long-standing contracts with Japanese utilities to take nuclear fuel made from the plutonium.
Frank von Hippel, one of the founders of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), a group of arms control and proliferation experts, will discuss Japan’s stock of plutonium in France when he meets with Diet members, according to a draft of a presentation he will give.
The group argues that the world’s growing inventory of plutonium from civilian use is a “clear and present danger” as it could be used in so-called dirty bombs.
Japanese government officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Schneider, who is a contributor to a soon-to-be-released IPFM report on plutonium separation in nuclear power programs, said the alternative to taking back the plutonium would be to pay other countries to use it in their reactors.
He said France would be one option, but that the cost would likely be high, especially as that country has its own stockpile to deplete. He did not give an exact cost.
“Giving its plutonium away and paying for it would expose the Japanese to the reality of plutonium as a liability rather than an asset,” Schneider said.
A precedent for that kind of deal could be set in Britain, where the government has offered to take ownership of 20 tons of Japanese plutonium stored at the Sellafield processing plant, according to the IPFM.
“This is a kind of win-win deal,” said Tatsujiro Suzuki, a former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, who will join Von Hippel in meeting with Diet members on Thursday.
“The British side would make money and the Japanese would lose less,” Suzuki said.