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Japan Pushes Forward on Plutonium Imports

Mixed-oxide fuel arrives amid protest

3 min read

21 May 2009—Japan’s power-generation companies are moving full-speed ahead—again—to start plutonium-thermal power generation this fall, in the face of fierce opposition from antinuclear groups. Japan needs to deal with its growing stockpiles of plutonium, a by-product of the fuel used in its reactors. This fissile material must be disposed of by burying it deep underground. Alternatively, it can be recycled and used again in Japan’s light-water reactors after it is combined with uranium to produce mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX.

The industry’s renewed efforts to use MOX is partly in response to the ongoing troubles of Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s experimental Monju fast-breeder plant in Fukui Prefecture, 400 kilometers west of Tokyo, which is designed to use the plutonium. But Monju has been closed since 1995, following a series of safety scares. The latest start-up postponement occurred this February, because of delays in final safety checks.

Tensions rose in Japan on 18 May when two armed ships, the Pacific Pintail and Pacific Heron , arrived from France delivering a cargo of MOX, despite intense opposition from environmental and antinuclear groups at home and along the sea route that took the vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, in South Africa, and through the southwest Pacific Ocean. According to several activist groups, including Greenpeace, the MOX consignment weighs an estimated 1700 kilograms and represents the largest transport of the fuel ever undertaken. It will be delivered to Chubu Electric Power, Kyushu Electric Power, and Shikoku Electric Power. MOX has not been transported to Japan since 2001, and a 1999 shipment had to be returned to the British manufacturer after the discovery that the company had falsified product data.

These shipments of MOX all originate as the spent fuel of Japanese reactors, which is sent under contract to Europe. The MOX and immobilized high-level nuclear waste derived from reprocessing are then shipped back to Japan.

MOX is currently used to power 35 reactors in Europe. Up to 70 reactors worldwide, including in the United States and Russia, are scheduled to move to MOX by next year, according to Areva, the French state-owned multinational group responsible for the MOX shipments to Japan.

But Areva’s figures appear overly optimistic. There is little chance that Japan will reach its goal of running 16 to 18 reactors on MOX by spring of 2011, given delays caused by opposition from local governments and citizen groups, construction hold-ups, as well as a number of set-backs in the launch of Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.'s Rokkasho reprocessing plant in northern Japan, which plans to turn spent fuel into MOX powder.

In the United States, the Department of Energy (DOE) also faces delays in its plans to make use of surplus plutonium. Duke Energy Corp., in Charlotte, N.C., failed to renew its contract this past December to buy MOX from the DOE. To dispose of weapons-grade plutonium, the agency is building a $5 billion MOX fabrication plant due to open in 2016 at its Savannah River site in South Carolina. Activist group Friends of the Earth was quick to point to a failed test of MOX fuel in Duke’s Catawba 1 reactor in August 2008, ”due to abnormal fuel assembly performance,” which may have played a part in Duke letting the agreement lapse. Without Duke, the DOE now has no firm customer contracts; it is reportedly seeking to negotiate new contracts with three other utility companies.

Meanwhile, in resource-poor but earthquake-prone Japan, antinuclear groups have been demonstrating outside the plants about to receive the MOX shipments, and 20 members of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, presented a signed letter to the nation’s transport ministry in February voicing concerns over the safety of MOX shipments by sea and land. Hideyuki Ban, codirector of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an antinuclear organization in Tokyo, characterizes the MOX program ”as part of Japan’s failed nuclear fuel-cycle policy.” He estimates that Japan had around 38 tons of plutonium held in France and the UK at the end of 2007. And to retrieve it, as Japan is obliged to do, Ban says it would mean at least another 20 shipments from Europe ”at a time when the threat of terrorism, including ship hijackings, has reached unprecedented proportions.”

About the Author

John Boyd writes about science and technology from Japan. In March 2009, he reported on a laser-based haptic interface that lets a user feel distant objects.

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