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OXFORD, England — When Japan
marked the 70th anniversary of Nagasaki’s obliteration by a plutonium
bomb on Aug. 9, its own cache of weapons-usable plutonium was more than
47 metric tons — enough to make nearly 6,000 warheads like the one that
Japan, an industrial powerhouse but resource-poor, has long depended on nuclear energy.
Before the earthquake and meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011, it
was generating nearly one-third of its electricity from nuclear power,
and had plans to increase that share to 50 percent by 2030. Japan’s 48
standard reactors burn uranium fuel, a process that yields plutonium, a
highly radioactive and extremely toxic substance.
reactors were shut down after Fukushima. But Japan still stores nearly
11 tons of plutonium on its territory (the rest is abroad for now), and
stockpiling plutonium remains hazardous: There is seismic instability,
but also the risk of theft by terrorists. Yet just this week, Japan put
one reactor back online, and another four have been approved for restart
by the end of FY2015.
this, one can thank a powerful network of utility companies,
conservative politicians and bureaucrats in Japan, who peddle the notion
that plutonium constitutes a sort of thermodynamic elixir. A byproduct
of burning uranium, plutonium itself can be processed in so-called
fast-breeder reactors to produce more energy. That step also yields more
plutonium, and so in theory this production chain is self-sustaining — a
kind of virtuous nuclear-energy cycle.
practice, however, fast-breeder technology has been extremely difficult
to implement. It is notoriously faulty and astronomically expensive,
and it creates more hazardous waste. By the 1990s, many countries that
experimented with fast-breeder reactors, including the United States,
had phased them out.
Japan doubled down. The government invested heavily in Monju, a
prototype fast-breeder reactor, and the nuclear industry went on a charm
offensive. It introduced Mr. Pluto, a puckish animated character, who
claimed plutonium was safe enough to drink. It set up so-called PR
centers next to nuclear plants: An exhibit at the one near Monju
declared that the reactor was “necessary because plutonium can be used
for thousands of years.”
exhibit did not say Monju was a failure. The reactor became operational
in 1994, but was shut down the next year after a leak caused a coolant
to catch fire. Then came a botched cover-up, more than a decade of
repairs, a failed restart and another accident. Monju has cost about
$12.5 billion so far and produced only a tiny amount of energy.
1993 Japan also started spending a fortune on a reprocessing facility
at Rokkasho, which would transform nuclear waste into fuel by separating
plutonium and usable uranium from other waste. The process also is
extremely expensive, and it, too, creates huge amounts of waste.
Scheduled to begin operations in 2016, the plant could add as many as
eight tons of plutonium to Japan’s stockpile each year.
Japan’s record with nuclear waste is abysmal, no other state has found a
safe or economically sustainable way to reuse such substances,
especially not plutonium. Britain has announced it will abandon its
costly and highly toxic reprocessing efforts by around 2020. The United
States has a program to recycle nuclear byproducts into a mixed-oxide
fuel known as MOx, a blend of uranium and plutonium. But the Obama
administration has put it on stand-by because of ballooning costs.
which is at the forefront of MOx conversion efforts, has also struggled
and is expected to phase out its MOx program by 2019. Instead, it has
announced plans to start building in 2020 a new kind of fast-breeder
reactor, known as ASTRID. This reactor is designed to generate energy by
converting high-level nuclear waste into less dangerous residues, which
require storage for several hundred years rather than many thousands of
years, as is the case with plutonium. But this project has been delayed
until at least 2030.
far the best way to handle plutonium is to store it in secure long-term
repositories underground. Having long banked on conversion, neither
France nor Britain has permanent facilities; they keep plutonium in
interim storage at reprocessing plants. Only two states have begun
building viable long-term storage. Finland is constructing a vast
facility blasted out of granite, which should be usable as of 2020. In
the United States, underground chambers that can accommodate 12 metric
tons of plutonium have been dug in New Mexico.
Japan’s many vulnerabilities, particularly seismic activity, nuclear
waste should no longer be stored there. The Japanese government should
pay its closest allies to take its plutonium away, permanently.
already holds about 20 tons of Japan’s plutonium, and France, about 16
tons, under contracts to reprocess it into usable fuel. Under current
arrangements, this fuel, plus all byproducts (including plutonium), are
to be sent back to Japan by 2020. Instead, Japan should pay, and
generously, for that plutonium to stay where it is, in secure interim
storage. And it should help fund the construction of secure permanent
storage in Britain and France.
Japanese government should also pay the United States to take the
nearly 11 tons of plutonium currently in Japan. This proposal will seem
controversial to some Americans, but the two states already have
arrangements for the exchange of nuclear material. (With Finland,
however, the proposition is a political nonstarter.) But it will take
many years to build additional permanent storage in the United States --
and overcome likely opposition in Congress -- so in the meantime,
Japan’s plutonium should be stored in interim facilities at American
Japan’s plutonium would be a great burden for receiver countries, and
Japan should pay heftily for the service. But even then the expense
would likely amount to a fraction of what Japan spends on its
ineffectual plutonium-energy infrastructure: By the most conservative
estimate, the Rokkasho facility is expected to cost $120 billion over
its 40-year lifetime.
benefits of this policy would extend far beyond Japan. An earthquake
near Rokkasho could trigger an unprecedented nuclear catastrophe;
preventing such an accident is in the whole world’s interest. And by
funding the construction of long-term storage facilities overseas, Japan
wouldn’t just be solving its plutonium problem. It would also be
helping other states mitigate their own.
Peter Wynn Kirby is a nuclear and environmental specialist at the University of Oxford.
Source: The New York Times