Japan Had a Big Plan. Now It Just Has a Lot of Plutonium

Its plan to recycle and use it has been fraught with problems
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 24, 2018 10:05 AM CDT
In this Nov. 8, 2012, file photo, spent nuclear fuel rods are stored in a storage pool at the Rokkasho nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, run by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. in Aomori prefecture, northern Japan.   (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)
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(Newser) – Here's a weird consequence of the 2011 Fukushima disaster: Japan has ended up with enough plutonium to make thousands of nuclear bombs, and its stockpile is raising tensions. The backstory begins decades before the quake, reports the New York Times in a look at the situation: As Japan warmed to nuclear power, it announced in the 1980s it would build a recycling plant that would convert nuclear waste into nuclear fuel that would be used by its reactors. It was due to open in 1997 at a cost of $6.8 billion. Nearly 20 years after that deadline, and after three times as much has been spent, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. says it's still four years away from opening the plant. In the meantime, it has 47 metric tons of plutonium waiting to be processed—and a relative dearth of reactors where it could be used.

The country pivoted away from nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima, with only nine of its 35 reactors operational; just four of those nine are able to use the fuel, though the plant would make enough fuel annually for 16 such reactors. And though Japan this summer promised to start whittling down its stockpile, the AP earlier this month reported three reactors would only be able to use one ton of plutonium per year. Per the Times, critics are starting to call for Japan to admit the plan's flaws and look for places to bury some of the waste. The AP and Asahi Shimbun explain Japan is the sole non-nuclear weapons state permitted by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to separate plutonium "for peaceful uses, though the same technology can make atomic bombs." That latter point has seen grumbling from North Korea amid its own denuclearization promises. The Times has much more, including why the plant is economically crucial for the prefecture it's in. (Read more Japan stories.)

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