Japan nuclear agency urges measures to cut plutonium stocks

Japan's nuclear policy-setting body on Thursday endorsed a call for stricter management of its fuel recycling program to reduce its plutonium stockpile.

The annual "nuclear white paper" approved by the Atomic Energy Commission is an apparent response to intensifying pressure from Washington as it pursues denuclearization in North Korea. It says Japan's fuel recycling program should continue, but minimize the amount of plutonium extracted from spent fuel for reuse in power generation to eventually reduce the stockpile.

Japan has pledged to not possess plutonium that does not have a planned use, but the promise increasingly sounds empty because of the slow restarts of Japanese power-generating reactors that can burn plutonium amid setbacks from the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Though Japanese officials deny any possible misuse of the material and reprocessing technology, the large stockpile of plutonium that can make atomic bombs also raises security concerns as the U.S. wants North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons.

Commission chairman Yoshiaki Oka said the effort to tackle the stockpile is Japan's own initiative underscoring its commitment to a peaceful nuclear program, and not because of the U.S. Oka said he was not aware of any outstanding problem between the two countries over the plutonium issue, but that Japan is taking into consideration the importance of maintaining "relationship of trust with the U.S."

The commission is compiling guidelines to better manage and reduce the plutonium stockpile. Measures would include some government oversight in setting a cap on plutonium reprocessing and a study into how to steadily reduce the plutonium processed abroad.

Oka declined to cite a numerical target, but he said reducing the stockpile is a "must."

Japan has nearly 47 tons of plutonium — 10 tons at home and the rest in France and Britain, where spent fuel from Japanese nuclear plants has been reprocessed because Japan is not able to reprocess it into plutonium-based MOX fuel at home.

The amount is enough to make 6,000 atomic bombs, but at Japan's Rokkasho reprocessing plant denies any risk of proliferation, citing its safeguards and close monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

After years of delay due to technical issues, the Rokkasho plant is in the final stages of safety approvals by the regulators ahead of its planned launch in 2021. Critics, however, say that starting up the plant only adds to the stockpile.

The plant at full capacity can annually produce 8 tons of plutonium, and burning that would require 16-18 reactors — a long shot given the slow pace of restarts and public resistance. Japanese utility operators are also opting to decommission aged reactors rather than making costly safety upgrades to meet the post-Fukushima standards.

Only four reactors have restarted since the Fukushima crisis, using stricter safety requirements and despite resistance of neighbors.

Another setback for Japan's plutonium balance is a failure of Monju, a plutonium-burning reactor built as the centerpiece of Japan's fuel recycling program. Monju had been suspended after a major accident in 1995 and is now being scrapped.


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