By FRANK N. VON HIPPEL and MASAFUMI TAKUBO
THIS year has seen a lot of concern about the confrontation between China and Japan over a group of islets in the East China Sea.
Less attention, though, is being paid to what may be a more destabilizing development: next year Japan plans to bring its long-delayed Rokkasho reprocessing plant online, which could extract as much as eight tons of weapons-usable plutonium from spent reactor fuel a year, enough for nearly 1,000 warheads. That would add to Japan’s existing stockpile of 44 tons, 9 of which are stored in domestic facilities.
Japan has repeatedly vowed never to develop nuclear weapons, and there’s no reason to doubt that now. But there’s more to worry about: reprocessing not only creates a tempting target for terrorists, it also sets a precedent for countries around the world to follow suit — and pushes the world toward rampant nuclear proliferation.
Despite the added cost of reprocessing — about $2.5 billion a year for the new facility — Japan insists it is the only viable option for the spent nuclear fuel which is filling up the cooling pools at its reactors. But there are easier alternatives.
When nuclear power plants in most other countries need space in their pools, they remove some of the older, cooler fuel and place it in air-cooled casks within the plant’s security perimeter. That costs 5 percent as much as reprocessing does. Eventually, the spent fuel is to be shipped to an underground repository, as is to be done with the high-level radioactive waste from reprocessing.
Reprocessing advocates in Japan and South Korea say that communities around the nuclear power plants will not allow dry-cask storage and that, when the spent fuel pools fill up, the power plants will have to shut down.
Read more at Japan’s Nuclear Mistake