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Recycled plutonium poses challenge for Japan

TOKYO --A spent-nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant is the prerequisite for full-fledged sustainable operation of nuclear power plants, as spent fuel rods are processed rather than stored. But the recycling may be as much a problem as it is a solution for Japan.

     Japan Nuclear Fuel has been building a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, since 1993. Technical problem after technical problem has delayed construction, leaving the project more than 15 years behind schedule.

     As a result, spent nuclear fuel at the country's nuclear power plants has been piling up over the years in storage pools. They are nearly full with unprocessed fuel rods.

     Bringing the recycling plant on line will help unclog the flow in which spent fuel is transported from power plants to Rokkasho for reprocessing and uranium and plutonium are extracted. That is a step absolutely necessary for many of the nation's nuclear power plants to restart. Utilities hold high hopes that the reprocessing plant will go into operation as quickly as possible.

     The question is what to do with plutonium, which can be recycled as fuel or could be used to make nuclear weapons. One major challenge Japan faces is that it may not be able to use up the recovered plutonium in power generation, as it initially planned. Plutonium can be used for power generation in the form of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, consisting of both uranium and plutonium.

     A fast breeder reactor that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency operated in Fukui Prefecture was previously seen as the venue to consume MOX fuel for power generation. But after a series of technical troubles, the reactor remains shut down. Another way to use MOX fuel, in pluthermal power generation at conventional nuclear power plants, has not been widely adopted.

     Plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons, so its production and possession are strictly controlled. Japan is the only non-nuclear-armed nation allowed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

     But if the country cannot find a way to use plutonium, it will only keep piling up. The current situation in Japan could raise concerns in the U.S. government, which takes the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons seriously. It could potentially impact Japan-U.S. talks on renewing their agreement on civil uses of atomic energy, which is due to expire in 2018.

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