Japan faces dilemma over plutonium stored in France

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 18, 2015 2:00 AM

By Aaron Sheldrick

TOKYO (Reuters) - Still dealing with the huge clean up after the Fukushima crisis and debating its future use of atomic energy, Japan now faces another nuclear conundrum – what to do with 16 tonnes of its plutonium sitting in France after being reprocessed there.

The question will be among the issues that come under the spotlight on Thursday and Friday as nuclear proliferation experts meet with legislators and government officials in Tokyo.

With its reactor fleet shut down in the wake of Fukushima, Japan is unable to take fuel made from the plutonium at the moment and could be forced to find other countries to use it.

The matter has taken on greater urgency as Areva, the French nuclear company that owns the La Hague reprocessing facility holding the plutonium in western Normandy, faces billions of dollars of losses.

"In this whole mess (at Areva) we have a huge amount of Japanese plutonium," said Mycle Schneider, an independent energy consultant, adding Japan would need to resolve the problem sooner rather than later.

An Areva spokesman said the company had long-standing contracts with Japanese utilities to take nuclear fuel made from the plutonium.

Frank von Hippel, one of the founders of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), a group of arms-control and proliferation experts, will discuss Japan's stock of plutonium in France when he meets with Japanese legislators, according to a draft of a presentation he will give that has been seen by Reuters.

The group argues the world's growing inventory of plutonium from civilian use is a "clear and present danger" as it could be used in so-called dirty bombs.

Japanese government officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Schneider, who is a contributor to a soon to be released IPFM report on plutonium separation in nuclear power programs, said the alternative to taking back the plutonium would be to pay other countries to use it in their reactors.

He said that France would be one option, but that the cost would likely be high, especially as that country has its own stockpile to deplete. He did not give an exact cost.

"Giving its plutonium away and paying for it would expose the Japanese to the reality of plutonium as a liability rather than an asset," said Schneider.

A precedent for that kind of deal could be set in Britain, where the government has offered to take ownership of 20 tonnes of Japanese plutonium stored at the Sellafield processing plant, according to the IPFM.

"This is a kind of win-win deal," said Tatsujiro Suzuki, a former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, who will join Von Hippel in meeting with legislators on Thursday.

"The British side would make money and the Japanese would lose less," said Suzuki.

(Additional reporting by Geert De Clercq in Paris and Osamu Tsukimori in Tokyo; Editing by Joseph Radford)