Japan - Plutonium Investigation n°2

The Plutonium Industry

Since Japan is not a nuclear weapon state, it has not developed reprocessing capacities to produce plutonium for a weapons program. Instead of building a plutonium industry from scrap, it has bought the technology from nuclear weapon states which had already made the heavy investments necessary. France is the most important supplier of this technology and know-how through SGN, an engineering subsidiary of COGEMA; this cooperation has enabled a demonstration reprocessing plant to be built at Tokai-mura, and the present day building of an industrial reprocessing plant at Rokkasho-mura. The amount paid for the blue print transfer is not known, but it is possibly linked to the multi billion dollar uranium enrichment services COGEMA supplies to Japanese utilities.

PNC operates a demonstration reprocessing plant at Tokai-mura, which, since 1977, has been reprocessing, on average about 45 metric tons of spent fuel per year -about half of its design throughput- (mostly from light water reactors). Since 1993, the nuclear fuel management company, JNFL, has been building an 800 MT annual capacity industrial reprocessing plant at Rokkasho-mura, based on the design of the two plants operating at La Hague, France. Japanese nuclear industry sources recently confirmed that the reprocessing plant will not be finished as planned in 2003, and its construction is "seriously behind schedule", as only 3% of the plant has been built. Earlier seismic requirements were not considered safe enough and were upgraded after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Also, more severe aircraft falling and crashing scenarios have been considered in structural redesigns. Utility shareholders already expect future reprocessing costs to be 40% above those of BNFL and COGEMA.

PNC also operates two demonstration MOX fuel fabrication plants, which have produced fuel for the demonstration fast breeder reactor Monju and the demonstration advanced thermal reactor Fugen.

The Japan Atomic Energy Commission developed a "Long-Term Program for Research, Development and Utilisation of Nuclear Energy" in 1994. This program has defined clear objectives for the long term development of a plutonium industry, comprising at least one reprocessing plant, a MOX fabrication plant, together with the construction of commercial fast-breeder reactors. These objectives would necessitate the pursuit of research and demonstration programs in the short term period.

Even the owner JNFL admits that both construction and operation costs for the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant will be way above expected levels. This will seriously affect the economic viability of the MOX use policy. In 1994, AEC was already estimating that MOX would be "somewhat more costly than direct disposal". An independent analysis carried out in the framework of the International MOX Assessment Project (IMA, see article) shows that MOX made in Japan would raise the fuel costs of LWR's by a factor of about 2.5. The subcontracting of reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication to European companies would make the process cheaper but would considerably increase transportation costs, in particular for the waste products generated in reprocessing operations.

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