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Paul Leventhal

Nuclear Control Institute

Public Forum on High-Level Nuclear Waste and Reprocessing
Nuclear Fuel Cycle Issues Research Group
Aomori, Japan

April 16, 1996


In the last few months, Japan's program to utilize plutonium as a nuclear fuel has experienced major setbacks.

 The serious accident at the Monju fast-breeder reactor in December triggered attempts by high officials of the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC) to mislead the public about the true extent of that accident, and the reactor is now shut down for at least three years, perhaps indefinitely.1

 In the wake of the accident, the prefectural governors of Fukui, Fukushima, and Niigata served notice to the national government that they are not prepared to consider licensing of light-water reactors to use plutonium fuels, and demanded a "thorough review" of the plutonium policy.2

 The price tag of the nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant now under construction at Rokkasho- mura is now conceded to be 1.9 trillion yen, about two times as expensive as originally projected.3

 Electrical power utilities have withdrawn their support for the plutonium-fueled Ohma Advanced Thermal Reactor, leading to the cancellation of the project.4

 Some 13 coastal states recently put the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on notice that stricter safety and reporting requirements are needed before further sea transports of Japanese plutonium and highly radioactive reprocessing wastes proceed.5

 And, as Dr. Lyman has made clear in his paper, there are important, safety concerns that need to be resolved before any more vitrified reprocessing wastes are allowed to be shipped to and stored here in Aomori Prefecture.

Awakening from the 'Plutonium Dream'

These developments should provide Japan's nuclear-power industry and the Japanese people a rude but overdue awakening from the "plutonium dream" that has distorted Japan's energy policy for over three decades. It is important to distinguish between the plutonium dream of the 1960s and the plutonium reality of the present day.

Thirty years ago, energy planners around the world assumed that nuclear power would soon become the primary method of electricity generation in the developed world, and eventually in the developing world, as well. It was also expected that the anticipated rapid growth in nuclear power would quickly outstrip the world's ability to produce large enough amounts of affordable uranium. As a result, it was assumed that nuclear programs would move to a "closed fuel cycle," in which spent uranium fuel would be "reprocessed" to separate out plutonium and the recovered plutonium would be used to fuel fast-breeder reactors (FBRs). These breeders would produce more plutonium than they consumed, and create unlimited amounts of inexpensive electricity.

Japan, ever since its decision in 1956 to acquire an indigenous reprocessing capability, shared in this plutonium dream. The oil supply disruptions and price shocks of the 1970s reinforced Japan's commitment to develop plutonium as the means of assuring energy independence.

However, the world's plutonium dream began to fall apart in the 1970s as the underlying assumptions began to fall away. High capital costs and safety concerns caused many nations to scale back dramatically their nuclear-power development programs. At the same time, uranium turned out to be far more abundant than anticipated, and after an abortive attempt by some suppliers to form a uranium cartel in the 1970s, the price of this commodity began steadily to decline as the market became oversupplied.6

This reversal of fortune for plutonium has been reflected in the nuclear-power programs of most major industrial states. The United States, the nation that originally created the plutonium dream through its "Atoms for Peace" program of the 1950s, put the brakes on plans for a domestic closed fuel cycle in the 1970s, as a result of directives from Presidents Ford and Carter. The rejection of plutonium recycle for the U.S. nuclear-power industry was formalized by cancellation of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor and Barnwell reprocessing plant projects in the early 1980s, during the Reagan Administration.

A primary force motivating these actions was concern about the nuclear-proliferation and nuclear-terrorism risks of the plutonium fuel cycle. This concern has been carried forward by the Clinton Administration, which declared in its 1993 non- proliferation policy statement that "[t]he United States does not encourage the civil use of plutonium, and accordingly, does not itself engage in plutonium reprocessing for either nuclear power or nuclear explosive purposes."7 Because of these proliferation concerns, the Clinton Administration halted work on the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor, a modified breeder-reactor technology, in 1994.

Germany, once committed to an ambitious plutonium program, cancelled its nearly-completed Kalkar breeder reactor in 1991.8 Plans for the Wackersdorf reprocessing plant were also abandoned.9 In 1995, Germany's nuclear waste law was revised to allow direct disposal of spent fuel without reprocessing, and a number of German utilities are now considering cancellation of their long-term reprocessing contracts.10

Even Great Britain and France, which rely on the provision of reprocessing services to Japan, Germany and other nations as a major source of foreign exchange, are less than enthusiastic about using plutonium themselves. Indeed, Great Britain has no plans to use plutonium in its domestic reactors, and will have a civilian plutonium surplus totaling some 50 metric tons by the turn of the century,11 with no plans for its disposition. Great Britain also canceled its own breeder reactor project and withdrew support for development of a European FBR.

France, despite a long-standing commitment to close its fuel cycle, has been extremely slow to introduce plutonium fuel into its own reactors. In fact, its electric utility, Electricite de France (EDF), recently changed its bookkeeping practices to assign an economic value of zero to its plutonium stocks.12 And plans to breed plutonium at the troubled Superphenix fast reactor have been abandoned for safety reasons in favor of small-scale research projects, after a series of technical problems, shutdowns and, yes, sodium coolant leaks.13

Today, Japan stands alone among major industrial states in its pursuit of a commercial breeder and plutonium fuel cycle. Only India professes a similar goal with a deeply troubled program.

Despite the serious Monju accident, and without having even fully established its cause, PNC and STA are committed to repair and restart Monju and to proceed with a commercial plutonium program. Despite the fact that in the wake of the Monju accident, the licensing of plutonium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for use in light-water reactors has been put on hold, Great Britain and France continue to separate tons of plutonium from Japanese spent fuel, and Tokyo Electric and Kansai Electric recently concluded contracts for the fabrication of MOX fuel elements from this plutonium.14 Despite the virtual absence of Japanese demand for plutonium, construction continues on the reprocessing plant in Rokkasho-mura.

Why does the Japanese nuclear program stubbornly stick to the plutonium path and perpetuate the plutonium dream, in defiance of economic reason, safety logic, and non- proliferation prudence? Several dangerous myths perpetuate the false notion that Japan's plutonium program is both necessary and safe. I would like to examine each of these myths and explain why they do not match up with the "plutonium reality" of the 1990s and beyond.

Myth #1: Plutonium Fuel is Needed to Guarantee Japan's Energy Security.

Nothing could be further from the truth. On the world market, there is a glut of cheap, non-weapons-usable uranium---the standard fuel for nuclear power plants in Japan and the rest of the world---and will be for the foreseeable future. Plutonium is highly uneconomical and unnecessary for running a nuclear power industry or gaining long-term energy security, even in energy-poor Japan. There is no need to employ plutonium-based fuels, which are four to eight times more expensive than equivalent uranium fuels. A recent Rand Corporation report calculated that reprocessing fuel to recover plutonium for use in light-water reactors would not make economic sense for at least the next 50 years, and that fast breeder reactors would not become economically competitive for over 70 years.15

A study by our institute16 shows that Japan could assure its long-term energy security by acquiring a strategic reserve of low-enriched uranium. In the extreme case, 50 years' worth of low-enriched uranium could be stockpiled and set aside, like a strategic petroleum reserve, at about half the cost of the plutonium program-- -a savings of hundreds of billions of yen. Even greater savings could be realized with a smaller reserve or with a reserve of natural rather than low-enriched uranium. In this way, Japan could preserve the flexibility to postpone commercial use of plutonium without sacrificing energy security. Japan would still have an ample, energy-secure timeframe within which to develop a commercial breeder reactor and to recover plutonium from spent fuel in the highly unlikely event uranium began to run out.

Myth #2: Reactor-Grade Plutonium Cannot be Made into Nuclear Bombs.

Japan's advocates of recovering and recycling plutonium have made false or misleading claims about the weapons potential of "reactor-grade plutonium," the type that Japan will recover from its spent fuel. Ryukichi Imai, former Japanese ambassador for non-proliferation, has written that the reactor-grade plutonium shipped in 1992 from France to Japan "is quite unfit to make a bomb."17 Hiroyoshi Kurihara, executive director of PNC, stated that "many Japanese experts express the opinion that reactor-grade plutonium could not be used for workable nuclear weapons." He speculated it "can be merely a nuclear fireworks, namely it produces glare and a big noise, but would not cause big disastrous effects of nuclear bombs....", and claimed that such a weapon would "fizzle like a firecracker."18

PNC has also distributed a video in which "Pluto Boy," a cartoon character representing plutonium, reassures the audience that a workable bomb cannot really be made from reactor-grade plutonium---the same video in which this cute character demonstrates that plutonium is safe enough to drink.

In fact, the ability to construct a weapon from plutonium separated from the spent fuel of nuclear power plants was settled long ago. It is dangerous even to consider it an open question. Hans Blix, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), informed my institute that there is "no debate" on this point at IAEA, and that the agency considers virtually all isotopes of plutonium, including those that comprise reactor-grade plutonium, to be usable in nuclear weapons.19 Back in 1976, the U.S. government first declassified the information that reactor-grade plutonium could be used to make weapons and could even be the basis for a national military program.20 The following year, it declassified the fact that the U.S. successfully detonated a nuclear bomb made from reactor-grade plutonium at the Nevada Test Site in 1962.21

In January 1994, a study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that "it would be quite possible for a potential proliferator to make a nuclear explosive from reactor-grade plutonium using a simple design that would be assured of having a yield in the range of one to a few kilotons, and more using an advanced design. Theft of separated plutonium, whether weapon-grade or reactor-grade, would pose a grave security risk."22

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End Notes

1. "Donen Verifies Videos of Leak Were Doctored," Daily Yomiuri, December 22, 1995; "Monju Operator Takes Flak for Leak-Video Coverup," Japan Times, December 22, 1995, p. 2. Back to document

2. Naoaki Usui, "Japanese Host Prefectures Refuse MOX Negotiations," Nucleonics Week, January 25, 1996. Back to document

3. "Construction Costs at Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant Reach 1.9 Trillion [Yen] ($17.8 Billion)," Atoms in Japan, February/March 1996, pp. 12-13. Back to document

4. "AEC Cancels Construction Demo-ATR at Ohma in Favor of ABWR," Atoms in Japan, September 1995, pp. 10- 11. Back to document

5. Pearl Marshall, "IMO Urged to Adopt Mandatory Code for Spent Fuel, Pu, HLW Shipments," NuclearFuel, March 11, 1996, pp. 19-20. Back to document

6. OECD Nuclear Energy Agency/IAEA, Uranium 1993: Resources, Production and Demand, 1994, pp. 9-10. Back to document

7. Fact Sheet, White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Nonproliferation and Export Control Policy," September 27, 1993. Back to document

8. Mark Hibbs, "Last Chapter for German Breeder: Kalkar Sold as Theme Park Site," Nucleonics Week, November 9, 1995, pp. 11-12. Back to document

9. NuclearFuel, June 12, 1989, p. 1.Back to document

10. Mark Hibbs & Ann MacLachlan, "Germans Likely to Terminate Two-Thirds of Their Post-2000 Reprocessing Deals," NuclearFuel, June 5, 1995, p. 4. Back to document

11. David Albright, Frans Berkhout, & William Walker, World Inventory of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1992, 1993, pp. 93-94. Back to document

12. Ann MacLachlan, "EDF to Erase Positive Pu Value in 1995 Accounts," Nucleonics Week, November 2, 1995, p. 14. Back to document

13. Ann MacLachlan, "New French Government OKs Restart of Superphenix After IHX Repair," Nucleonics Week, August 24, 1995, p. 3. Back to document

14. "MOX Program Contracts Already Signed for Fuel Fabrication TEPCO/KEPCO: Completion Projected as Early as Next Year," Yomiuri Shimbun, Osaka ed., February 26, 1996, p. 2. Back to document

15. Brian Chow & Kenneth Solomon, Limiting the Spread of Weapon-Usable Fissile Materials, Rand Corporation, November 1993, pp. 47-49. It should be noted that Chow & Solomon assume conservatively that uranium prices will be much higher than they are today. Back to document

16. Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley, "A Japanese Strategic Uranium Reserve: A Safe and Economic Alternative to Plutonium," Science & Global Security, 1994, Volume 5, pp. 1-31. An abridged version of the study was published in Japanese in Gentsu (#2997-3000, June 1994). Back to document

17. Ryukichi Imai, Plutonium, Volume 2, October 1992, p. 18. Back to document

18. Hiroyoshi Kurihara, International Workshop on Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: Issues for International Action, March 1992, p. 109. The "fizzle like a firecracker" remark was made in his oral presentation at the workshop. Back to document

19. "Blix Says IAEA Does Not Dispute Utility of Reactor-Grade Pu for Weapons," NuclearFuel, November 12, 1990, p. 8. Blix made this statement only after the Nuclear Control Institute challenged assertions by IAEA officials earlier that year that reactor-grade plutonium was unsuitable for use in weapons. Back to document

20. Robert W. Selden, "Reactor Plutonium and Nuclear Explosives," Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, November 1976.Back to document

21. John A. Griffin, U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), letter to Jim Cubie, New Directions, September 13, 1977. Back to document

22. Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium, 1994, p. 33. Back to document

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