Sunday, June 17, 2012

More on Japan's Efforts to Resume Plutonium Production: Questions and Implications

I have posted quite a bit on Japan's reprocessing of nuclear fuel to produce plutonium.

Japan decided to discontinue its efforts to "close the fuel cycle" by "breeding" plutonium fuel in fast-reactors.

The death knell of the breeder fast-breeder program occurred in a February 23, 2012 review by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which concluded that technological considerations prevented the program from being a realistic option. The commission recommended that a more viable alternative would be to recycle plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) reactor fuel.

(source: John Daly. Another Fukushima Causality: Japan’s Fast-Breeder Reactor Program. Oil Price.Com 2012, February 27

Majia here: Ok so Japan shouldn't have a need for plutonium unless it plans on selling it abroad since the country purportedly has no nuclear weapons program and it has been stockpiling plutonium for decades. 

(Mox fuel does contain plutonium, but in very low concentrations and Japan has been stockpiling plutonium for years, as has the US, Russia, Britain, etc--see my posts and

Given the lack of demonstrable need for more plutonium, it is perplexing that Japan convened a secret panel to recommend that the government resume processing of plutonium.

Here is a link to my latest post on the subject with older links below:

Majia Here: To repeat my question: One has to wonder what the purpose is for processing plutonium given the decision to end the breeder program and given Japan's documented history of stockpiling plutonium?

Now, I've stumbled across this article (below), which contains some interesting facts. One fact in the article that I've also read elsewhere is that the plutonium designed to be used in breeder reactors can also be used to make nuclear weapons. Apparently India did just that.

The article also includes a confusing demand that Japan end its breeder-reactor program, which was supposedly ended already:

Plutonium and Japan’s Nuclear Waste Problem: International Scientists Call for an End to Plutonium Reprocessing and Closing the Rokkasho Plant by Piers Williamson

[Excerpt] "Japan possesses around 40 tons of plutonium, which is enough to make five thousand nuclear warheads. Most of this plutonium is stored in France and Britain.5

... Prof. von Hippel concluded [his presentation on March 31, 2012] by making four suggestions:

1) Japan should end its breeder reactor programme. . . ."

MAJIA HERE: The article goes on to ponder the perplexing persistence in insisting on reprocessing nuclear fuel to produce plutonium:

[Excerpt] Overall, two things were made clear at the event. First, spent fuel reprocessing originates from the production of weapons materials and the initial move towards reprocessing was spurred by wishes to gain nuclear capabilities. Although Japan does not possess nuclear weapons, its large plutonium ‘stockpile’, combined with its advanced technological base, means that it could go nuclear very easily. As Jacques E. C. Hymans has argued, it only takes the arrival of a leader with the psychology of an ‘oppositional nationalist’ for the nuclear option to be taken irrespective of seemingly rigid constraints.6 The meaning of Japan’s plutonium ‘stockpile’ should thus be considered carefully by those keen to prevent a nuclear weapons switch as the state maintains its liminal position of potential nuclear contender.

[Excerpt] Second, there has been a global move away from plutonium use for nuclear fuel and from civilian reprocessing (plutonium separation). Japan’s persistence in reprocessing thus bucks an international trend. Arguments that it is impossible to stop appear flimsy when the global experience and the UK case are taken into account, and Japanese leaders should find Japan’s reprocessing as a role model in support of South Korean reprocessing troubling in light of the regional tensions. This is especially so given the lack of any economic benefit to the country as a whole. Put simply, reprocessing is defunct and should be buried with the waste it cannot handle. No one takes Japan’s plans to quickly use its ‘stockpile’, or rather ‘surplus’, as credible. As Prof. von Hippel has commented elsewhere, ‘There is a real credibility problem here.’7

MAJIA HERE: What is the "real credibility problem here" that von Hippel is referencing?

Is the credibility problem that Japan has no legitimate reason for re-processing fuel - a.k.a. creating plutonium - other than for the creation of nuclear weapons?

I am becoming increasingly convinced that Japan may indeed have a secret weapons program.

United States Circumvented Laws To Help Japan Accumulate Tons of Plutonium By Joseph Trento, on April 9th, 2012 National Security News Service

Majia here: If there is a weapons program, the next question is: who does Japan see as its primary enemies besides China?

The presence of a secret weapons program would explain a lot.

I suspect that if one really does exist, Tokai plays a role. That reactor is having serious trouble and has had serious trouble in the past

Japan’s Nuclear Criticality Accident
Steven Dolley, Research Director Nuclear Control Institute
October 4, 1999

[Excerpted] When and where did the accident take place?

            An inadvertent nuclear chain reaction, or so-called “criticality accident,” began at 10:35 AM local time on Thursday, September 30 at the JCO Co. Ltd. Conversion Test Building at Tokai-mura, Japan, about 75 miles northeast of Tokyo.  The chain reaction, which gave off intense heat and radiation, could not be stopped until 18 hours later.
The accident began when workers were converting enriched uranium into oxide powder for use in preparing fuel for the Joyo experimental fast breeder reactor.  This reactor is part of Japan’s plutonium-production program.  The uranium was enriched to 18.8% U-235, far higher than the 3 to 5% enriched uranium used as fuel in Japan’s conventional nuclear power reactors.  Breeder fuel, whether enriched uranium or plutonium, is far more susceptible to criticality accidents than power-reactor fuel.

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