Xinhua News Agency & Global Post – 2015-08-30 01:24:55
Japan’s Plutonium Stockpile Worries Oxford Specialist
Xinhua News Agency & Global Post
NEW YORK (August 17, 2015) — The handling of Japan’s huge plutonium stockpile remains a challenge for the whole world, an Oxford environmental expert has warned.
When Japan marked the 70th anniversary of Nagasaki’s obliteration by a plutonium bomb on Aug. 9, its own cache of weapons-usable plutonium was more than 47 metric tons, enough to make nearly 6,000 warheads like the one that flattened the Japanese city, Dr. Peter Wynn Kirby of University of Oxford wrote in an op-ed on Monday’s New York Times.
Japan, an industrial powerhouse but poor in resources, has long depended on nuclear energy. Before the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in the wake of a massive earthquake in 2011, nearly one-third of Japan’s electricity was from nuclear power, and it had plans to increase that share to 50 percent by 2030.
Japan’s 48 standard reactors burn uranium fuel, a process that yields plutonium, a highly radioactive and extremely toxic substance.
Although these reactors were shut down after the Fukushima tragedy, Japan still stores nearly 11 tons of plutonium on its territory, with the rest in Britain and France.
Stockpiling plutonium in Japan remains hazardous given seismic instability in the country and the risk of theft by terrorists, warned Kirby.
Yet just this week, Japan put one reactor back in operation, and another four have been approved for restart by the end of fiscal year 2015.
As a byproduct of burning uranium, plutonium itself can be processed in so-called fast-breeder reactors to produce more energy. That step also yields more plutonium, and so in theory this production chain is self-sustaining — a kind of virtuous nuclear-energy cycle, noted Kirby.
“In practice, however, fast-breeder technology has been extremely difficult to implement. It is notoriously faulty and astronomically expensive, and it creates more hazardous waste,” wrote Kirby.
Many other countries that experimented with fast-breeder reactors, including the United States, had phased them out by the 1990s. But Japan continued to invest heavily in the technology, noted Kirby.
While Japan’s record with nuclear waste is abysmal, no other country has found a safe or economically sustainable way to reuse such substances, especially not plutonium, he noted.
Given Japan’s many vulnerabilities, particularly seismic activity, nuclear waste should no longer be stored in the country, he argued. “The Japanese government should pay its closest allies to take its plutonium away, permanently.”
Britain and France respectively holds 20 tons and 16 tons of Japan’s plutonium under contracts to reprocess it into usable fuel. Under current arrangements, this fuel, plus all byproducts, including plutonium, are to be sent back to Japan by 2020.
“Japan should pay, and generously, for that plutonium to stay where it is, in secure interim storage. And it should help fund the construction of secure permanent storage in Britain and France,” he said.
The Japanese government should also pay the United States to remove the nearly 11 tons of plutonium currently in Japan, he argued.
“Handling Japan’s plutonium would be a great burden for receiver countries, and Japan should pay heftily for the service. But even then the expense would likely amount to a fraction of what Japan spends on its ineffectual plutonium-energy infrastructure,” wrote the specialist.
Making Japan free of plutonium stockpile, thus preventing nuclear catastrophe as a result of earthquakes, would be in the whole world’s interest, he concluded.
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