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Two Faces of Japan’s Nuclear Power

Posted November. 15, 2004 23:06,   


The Japanese Daily Yomiuri said on November 15 that Japan, the world’s fourth-largest plutonium holder (40 tons), has decided to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel (fuel rods) itself and to continue to produce plutonium.

Until now, the Japanese government has put the U.K. and France in charge of reprocessing its nuclear fuel. Yomiuri said that, however, starting in 2006, when the reprocessing facility in Japan is completed, the Japanese government plans to reprocess the nuclear fuel itself. If so, Japan is likely to posses an additional five tons of plutonium every year, which is equivalent to an amount that can produce 1,000 nuclear weapons.

In fact, until now, Japan has enjoyed several favors regarding nuclear power thanks to its cooperative relationship with the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Knowing this, critics have pointed out that Japan is not in a position to raise its voice towards Korea for its nuclear experiments.

Energy Security First, Economic Efficiency Later-

The Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute (JAERI) under the Japanese Cabinet has recently established a new long-term plan, which makes reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel mandatory.

Against the institute’s decision, Japanese electric power companies requested the JAERI to reclaim at least some of the rods, arguing that reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel would dramatically increase the production cost of electricity. But the institute rejected the request, saying that increasing the efficiency of using nuclear fuel is more important.

If reprocessed nuclear fuel is used, each Japanese household is expected to pay 800 yen (or 8,000 won) more annually for electric charges than they used to pay from power by the reclaimed fuel.

However, the Japanese government reconfirmed its decision, saying that the reclamation is likely to cause environmental problems and nuclear fuel is a significant resource as well.

Currently, Japan is known to have 52 nuclear power plants running at full capacity producing 1,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel. The Japanese press said that if a second reprocessing plant in Aomori of northern Japan starts operation in 2006, annually, 800 tons of fuel would be reprocessed, producing five tons of plutonium along with it.

Double Standard of Japan’s Nuclear Policy

Japan is the only non-nuclear weapon nation that has run its own reprocessing facilities to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.

As of late 2003, Japan holds a total of 40.7 tons of plutonium, including 5.5 tons in Japan, 21.6 tons in France and 13.6 tons in the U.K., which Japan has entrusted with reprocessing work. With this amount, Japan is capable of producing a large number of nuclear weapons anytime it wants. Though low enriched uranium, experts have pointed out that if Japan changes the use of the Aomori plant, it is possible to produce high-enriched uranium (HEU) there for nuclear weapons.

In the meantime, the IAEA reached an agreement that Japan’s nuclear capability was unlikely to be converted into nuclear weapons, and it decreased the number of nuclear inspections on Japan from four to two times.

The problem is that Japan, still not deciding how to use surplus plutonium, continues to accumulate its plutonium reserve. Even the nation’s conservative newspaper Yomiuri pointed out that the Japanese government should be clear regarding the use of plutonium so as not to attract suspicion of attempting nuclear weapons development.

Won-Jae Park parkwj@donga.com