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14:53 13 March 2012

OPINION: Reconsidering the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant

By Frank von Hippel
PRINCETON, New Jersey, March 13, Kyodo

While reconsidering the future of nuclear power, Japan should not forget the troubled 2 trillion yen Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture.

The plant has not yet gone into full operation because it still cannot solidify liquid radioactive waste produces.

According to Japan's Atomic Energy Commission, not operating it would reduce Japan's electricity costs by 6-7 trillion yen over the plant's life cycle. There would still be jobs for Rokkasho Village for decades since 1.5 trillion yen would be required to decontaminate the plant.

The plant was originally supposed to recover plutonium from spent nuclear fuel to provide startup fuel for a new generation of plutonium breeder reactors like Japan's Monju reactor.

But these reactors have proven to be costly and unreliable worldwide and most countries have abandoned the effort to commercialize them. Monju has only operated for a few months since it was connected to the grid in 1995.

Because of the failure of breeder reactors, Japan, like France and the United Kingdom, has a plutonium disposal problem. It has accumulated about 45 tons of separated plutonium in Japan and Europe, enough to make more than 5,000 Nagasaki-type bombs if it were stolen. Japan's nuclear utilities have decided to dispose of this plutonium in ''mixed-oxide'' (MOX) fuel for the reactors that produced it but prefecture governors have delayed the MOX program for a decade with safety concerns that have increased after the Fukushima accident. The nuclear utilities do not need the problem of more separated plutonium.

The main reason now cited to justify the startup of the Rokkasho plant is that the spent fuel pools at the nuclear power plants around the country are filling up. Thus it is supposed to be necessary to ship spent fuel to Rokkasho and reprocess it.

A better and much less costly solution would be to use the type of dry storage that most other countries are turning to. In any case, spent fuel at reactor sites should be placed in massive dry casks as soon as possible for safety reasons.

Storing it in cooling pools longer than necessary can create safety problems. The spent fuel stored in casks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was not in the news because there were no concerns about its safety.

If Japan decided to end reprocessing soon, it would strengthen international security. Today, Japan is the only non-weapon state that reprocesses but South Korea, in its negotiations over nuclear energy cooperation with the U.S., is insisting that it should have the same rights as Japan. Others could follow, leading to higher risks of separated plutonium being used for making bombs by governments or subnational groups. The U.S. does not reprocess and the U.K. plans to stop.

Japan therefore could reduce its plutonium disposal problem, strengthen the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, and increase nuclear safety by ending its reprocessing program and storing its spent fuel in dry casks instead.

(Frank von Hippel is professor, Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University. He is co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials.)




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