Last Friday marked the fifth anniversary of the disastrous Fukushima nuclear meltdown. The disaster, which displaced nearly 120,000,* is the world’s second most destructive nuclear accident in human history and remains a highly sensitive and contentious issue between the Japanese public and the central government.
Moreover, while many of Japan’s nuclear reactors remain switched off, the recent push by the Abe administration to reinstate nuclear power back in Japan has reignited the outrage of the usually docile and politically-inactive Japanese people. The focus of these debates, however, has largely been directed at whether Japan should possess a nuclear energy program at all. Yet this debate inevitably draws attention away from a much more obvious flaw in the nuclear policy of the Abe administration — namely, its reprocessing program.
Unlike the standard ‘once-through’ nuclear fuel cycle, Japan’s policy is to ‘reprocess’ the waste produced by its thermal nuclear reactors. Basically, this entails taking spent nuclear fuel and recycling it to be used once more in the reactor.
Conceptually, the prudence of the policy seems clear. The official justification for Japan’s reprocessing program is primarily to save on its uranium consumption. The story goes that reprocessing allows the nuclear plants to use something called ‘MOX fuel’ in its reactors instead of the standard low-enriched uranium (LEU).
Yet there are a number of issues with this justification. First, only 16 to 18 of Japan’s 48 reactors can use MOX fuel to produce nuclear power — the rest can still only use LEU. Second, even in the few reactors which can use MOX fuel, these reactors only use MOX fuel in about a third of the entire reactor — again, with uranium making up the rest. Accordingly, even with reprocessing, Japan is still hugely reliant on uranium, with MOX fuel allowing Japan to reduce its uranium dependence by only ten percent at best.
More crucially, with only very limited benefit, the costs that Japan’s reprocessing program brings with it are exceedingly high. First, the Federation of Electric Companies of Japan has estimated that the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori prefecture currently under construction will cost the Japanese tax payers a total of 11 trillion yen ($97 billion) over the years (for construction, operation and eventually, dismantling).
Second, reprocessing produces reactor-grade plutonium — and the potential for plutonium to be used to create a nuclear bomb has generated sizable security concerns. Most notably, Japan’s position as the only non-nuclear-weapon state currently engaged in reprocessing has the ability to set the precedent for other civilian nuclear power programs. South Korea, for example, has been very vocal about its wishes to start its own reprocessing program. Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult for powers like the United States to justify blocking South Korea from engaging in reprocessing when their strategic rival Japan is actively engaging in precisely these activities.
Further, not only would this likely cause waves with ROK’s northern neighbors (especially given the most recent belligerent rhetoric coming out of North Korea), but if South Korea were granted the right to reprocess, others would likely follow, too. In the opinion of esteemed nuclear physicist Masa Takubo, it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to envisage a scenario a few years down the line where a number of non-nuclear weapons states are producing tens of tons of plutonium.
Finally, the threat of nuclear terrorism cannot be disregarded. With plutonium’s radiation having low penetration depth — making it much easier to steal than spent nuclear fuel — the potential for it to be stolen and used to make a nuclear bomb has led the Obama administration in recent years to pressure Japan tirelessly to shore up the security at its nuclear facilities. Granted, the threat of a terrorist attack in Japan is far lower than in many other regions of the world. But with organizations like ISIS making it abundantly clear that they seek to procure nuclear material to construct a bomb, Japan’s possession of tons of plutonium** is courting terrorism of monumental proportions.
With all these costs and risks that come with Japan’s reprocessing and the minimal benefits it receives from its stated purpose of reducing uranium consumption, then, the question remains: why is Japan still reprocessing?
The answer: waste storage.
Japan continues to push ahead with its reprocessing program (in principle, at least) in order to justify the near-3,000 tons of spent fuel currently being stored at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. According to the central government’s agreement with the Aomori prefectural government, were the central government to abandon its reprocessing program, the Aomori governor could order all the spent fuel at Rokkasho out of Aomori prefecture. Thus, cancelling the program could cause all 3,000 tons to need to be rehoused elsewhere around Japan.
Yet who would take it? The huge opposition from local authorities throughout Japan to housing interim nuclear storage facilities implies that the Japanese government would have a herculean task trying to persuade local communities into allowing hundreds or even thousands of tons of fissile material to be housed on their land. Even an attempt at this feat could cause a humiliating spent fuel calamity to pummel the already bleary-eyed Abe administration.
This month Japan remembers the devastating consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Yet Abe’s persistent statements of commitment to a safe and prudent nuclear Japan continue to be undermined by the folly of his administration’s nuclear reprocessing endeavors.
*A previous version of this piece said the Fukushima disaster killed 1,876 people. There have been no casualties directly linked to the nuclear meltdown.
**A previous version of this piece noted that Japan has 48 tons of plutonium. As the majority of that is stored overseas, the figure has been removed.
Allan Nixon is currently pursuing an MA in International Relations at the International University of Japan, specializing in East Asian security studies and arms proliferation.