Needless Nuclear Reprocessing: The Bridge to Unnecessary Risk

Read in French and German

Introduction by Akio Matsumura

I decided to work full time on expanding the conversation on the Fukushima accident and cleanup process because of one reason:  nuclear power plant accidents have the ability to alter our land and society for tens of thousands years. We have seen major conflict over the last centuries, but even in the case of World War II, in which 60 million people died, our societies have proved resilient and recovered in a matter of decades, even if permanently altered. A full fuel pool fire would bring us a catastrophe like we’ve never seen.

The work of Frank von Hippel, a professor at Princeton University  and co-founder of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, has brought the issues of reprocessing spent fuel, another aspect of nuclear technology laden with risk, to my attention. Chris Cote, editor and contributor to this blog, summarizes a recent report by Frank von Hippel and Masafumi Takubo and describes the technology’s ability to be a bridge to further risk: the creation of plutonium, a nuclear weapon material. I’d like to thank Dr. von Hippel for his help in reviewing this summary for publication here.

 Needless Nuclear Reprocessing:

The Bridge to Unnecessary Risk

Chris Cote

Japan’s Other Nuclear Program

Irradiated water continues to flow into the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima Daiichi, three reactors remain radioactive and unapproachable, and a fourth loaded with spent fuel could collapse under its own weight. Amidst this disorder, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has shifted attention away from the cleanup and at the same time is planning to expand Japan’s nuclear capabilities by opening the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant some 270 miles north of the Fukushima power plants.

Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant

Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant

As made clear by two members of the International Panel on Fissile Materials in a recent Asahi Shimbun special report, Japan’s reason for pursuing reprocessing (against the urging of the United States) likely has less to do with any fixed goal than it has to do with continuing to follow a tangled web of policies from which they cannot extricate themselves. Pursuing a policy that not only does not solve its targeted problems but leads to nuclear weapons material only because the government lacks an alternative is irresponsible. And now a workable alternative has been identified.

In “Ending Plutonium Separation: An alternative approach to managing Japan’s spent nuclear fuel,” Masafumi Takubo and Frank von Hippel show how utilities, local governments, and relevant federal agencies find themselves trapped in a complicated set of policies committing Japan to reprocessing as its nuclear spent fuel disposal policy, despite it being ineffective, costly, potentially dangerous, and destabilizing the international nuclear nonproliferation regime. Throughout the report they explain how strong central action can lead Japan to a better alternative that uses air-cooled dry casks to store spent nuclear fuel instead of reprocessing, a method that creates similar levels of waste as originally marked for disposal.

What will the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant do? If it opens in the next few months as planned — after sixteen years of delays — the plant will take spent nuclear fuel and separate out the plutonium that was created when the original uranium was irradiated by neutrons in the reactor.

“Plutonium is a nuclear weapon material and separating it makes no sense economically. In spent fuel, it is virtually inaccessible, but separated plutonium is an attractive target for would-be nuclear terrorists. The 8 tons that Japan plans to separate annually would be sufficient to make one thousand Nagasaki-type bombs.” -in “Ending Plutonium Separation”.  Read the whole report.

What uses does plutonium have? Reprocessing technology has had multiple purposes over its lifetime. Nuclear reprocessing was originally used to separate plutonium for use in nuclear weapons (plutonium doesn’t need to be enriched to high levels like uranium-235, the original ingredient in a nuclear reactor, and very small amounts can cause catastrophic damage in a bomb).  Countries pursued this path to nuclear weapons following World War II and now there are large separated plutonium stocks worldwide, especially in the United States and Russia. Japan owns 44 tons, a significant amount.

In the late 1960s world uranium reserves were thought to be small and an alternative nuclear fuel was sought. Breeder reactors, so called because they create more plutonium than they use, were developed. Scientists and policy makers thought they had found a cheap, perpetual electricity source. But the reactor technology proved to be unreliable and too expensive to use without heavy government subsidy. As reprocessing became costly, it also became unpopular politically. In 1977 U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced the United States would no longer pursue commercial reprocessing as part of its non-proliferation efforts (specifically to discourage countries such as South Korea).  With the failure of commercial breeders, countries decided to use the plutonium in Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel for ordinary reactors with only a small extension of the fuel resource.

For No Good Reason

The reprocessing programs that continued from the early days of the technology were never economical but persisted from national policies that required the use of reprocessing for waste disposal and were never overturned. Japan’s reasons for its reprocessing program seem to follow this trajectory.  Japan ostensibly wishes to make more plutonium, a material they already own much of and have had no use for. Japan, like other countries, has no breeder reactors, and use of plutonium in Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel , has encountered a great deal of public resistance. Japan is the only nonweapon state that reprocesses today but it has signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and is not planning to create weapons.  Even if it did have an immediate use for plutonium, Japan already owns 44 tons of it. Takubo and von Hippel explain that that is enough to make more than 5,000 Nagasaki-type nuclear explosives.

Japan's Stockpile of Separated Plutonium (Takubo and von Hippel, 2013, pg. 8)

Japan’s Stockpile of Separated Plutonium
(Takubo and von Hippel, 2013, pg. 8)

For a program with no use, reprocessing has several serious actual and potential consequences for Japan.

  1. Reprocessing is expensive. According to Takubo and von Hippel, over the course of its lifetime, Rokkasho will cost Japanese taxpayers 8 trillion Yen more than storing the spent fuel in dry casks.
  2. It is allowing the government to delay creating an effective nuclear waste policy program (either interim or long term). Spent fuel is piling up across Japan, both at Rokkasho, which in its delay period has accumulated 3000 tons of spent fuel to be reprocessed, and at all other reactor sites, several of which will reach storage capacity in less than a decade if Japan’s nuclear program comes back online. Even if Rokkasho does begin reprocessing spent fuel, it will create new streams of waste, negating its use as a disposal tool.
  3. Running a reprocessing plant has direct costs for humans and water sources, as evidenced by the radiation accident experienced by Russians near the Mayak plant and increased radiation in the North Sea produced as effluent run off by France’s La Hague reprocessing facility.
  4. A restart of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant threatens to destabilize the non-proliferation regime. Countries may see Rokkasho coming online as a green light for their own reprocessing programs. The abundance of plutonium resulting from a surge in reprocessing, especially in countries employing the technology for the first time, makes appealing targets for terrorists. Specifically, South Korea has been pointing to Japan as a precedent or other legitimating reason to begin separating plutonium as North Korea continues to rattle its (nuclear-tipped) sabers next door.

Unnecessary Risk

The use of nuclear technology forces us to accept and live with two serious risks:  A nuclear power plant accident, in which the worst case scenario is an unstoppable spent fuel pool fire, and the use of a nuclear weapon, in which the worst case scenario is a worldwide deployment of the existing nuclear arsenal.

Reprocessing is the bridge between nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. Fukushima showed us the unimagined and undiscussed dangers of nuclear power plants. Japan has already experienced the damage inflicted by nuclear weapons.  Rather than remaining stuck with policies popular in the 1960s, Japan needs to reroute its policies away from reprocessing toward more effective spent fuel disposal. Fortunately, Takubo and von Hippel provide Japan’s policy makers with an alternative to operating Rokkasho. Although the Japanese will not want to embarrass themselves, the central government should declare Rokkasho a failure for all the reasons listed above, disentangle the web of policies that has trapped all stakeholders, and establish a politically, economically, and environmentally responsible framework for the safe interim storage of Japan’s spent fuel while Japan, like all other countries with nuclear power plants, begins looking for a long term solution.


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