By Tatsujiro Suzuki
JUL 15, 2020
On May 13, Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) approved a draft report concluding that Japan's first commercial reprocessing plant at Rokkasho, Aomori, meets new regulatory standards set by the NRA after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.
The reprocessing plant, which was originally scheduled to start working in 1997, can finally start commercial operation in early part of 2021 after 24 postponements.
This is not just another nuclear facility approved by NRA after the Fukushima accident. The Rokkasho reprocessing plant, which separates plutonium from spent nuclear fuel at about six to eight tons per year, could raise international security concerns.
As of the end of 2018, Japan has already accumulated 45.7 tons of separated plutonium, which is the largest stockpile owned by a non-nuclear weapons state.
Although Japan has a clear policy that it will never hold plutonium which does not have specific civilian use, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep its promise as the plans to consume the element have not progressed as planned.
First, the government decided in 2016 that it would decommission a prototype fast breeder reactor, MONJU, which was supposed to be a bridge toward the commercialization of the complete nuclear fuel cycle.
Second, the plan to use plutonium fuel (called MOX fuel) for 16-18 conventional light water reactors (LWRs), has also been delayed. It is expected that demand for plutonium will be very limited as only four LWRs are currently operating.
As a result, if the Rokkasho reprocessing plant starts its operation, it is likely that Japan's plutonium stockpile will grow further.
In order to minimize international concerns, Japan's Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) published a new report, "Basic principles on Japan's utilization of plutonium," July 31, 2018.
For the first time, JAEC publicly declared that Japan will "decrease its plutonium stockpile" or at least "its stockpile is not to increase beyond its current level." This is a significant positive step toward reducing the plutonium stockpile, but it may not be sufficient, mainly because the Japanese government has maintained its reprocessing policy, which does not allow for the disposal of nuclear spent fuel...