Dubious viability of nuclear fuel reprocessing plants

Other Names:
Plutonium manufacture by civilian reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel

Japan had 48 tons of plutonium as of the end of 2014 and sent 331 kilograms of plutonium to the United States earlier this year. Under the US-Japan reprocessing program (dating from 1988 and to be reviewed in 2018) plutonium extracted from used nuclear fuel is recycled to make plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel usable at nuclear power plants. Japan has licensed companies in foreign countries such as Britain and France to produce the so-called MOX fuel.  But the plutonium recycling effort has faltered because most of Japan’s nuclear plants have suspended operations due to public safety concerns since the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant following the giant earthquake and tsunami in 2011.  In 2016, the senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council said the United States would back a change to Japan’s nuclear fuel reprocessing program because Japan has large plutonium stockpiles, which "don’t have a dedicated pathway to use and disposition” and can be used to make nuclear weapons.


If the new British Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) goes ahead Ed. it did, it will be vastly more difficult to persuade Russia to shut down its unsafe reprocessing. (Wastes being reprocessed exploded at Tomsk in 1992.) THORP's economic prospects are dim. Foreign contracts will sustain it through 10 years, but there is little expectation of operating beyond that. THORP's foreign contracts require it to receive spent fuel and reactor fuel and return plutonium and wastes. The UK can do both without even turning on the plant. Britain already has 36 tonnes of plutonium that it does not know what to do with, while bureaucratic momentum drives the project ahead. The last thing the world needs is additional tonnes of plutonium that must be safeguarded so tightly that not even a few kilograms are lost to terrorists or to outlaw governments.

Broader Problems:
Plutonium overproduction
Problem Type:
E: Emanations of other problems
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and InfrastructureGOAL 10: Reduced InequalityGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions
Date of last update
06.05.2019 – 19:01 CEST