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» Issue of plutonium changed Britain and Germany policy after Fukushima disaster

The Fukushima nuclear crisis is creating business opportunities for Britain’s nuclear industry, helping Germany shutter its nuclear reactors and leaving questions over the future of Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling ambitions.

Britain is awash in plutonium, some 120 tons, due in part to the nuclear crisis spawned by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The country now sees the opportunity to make money in storing unused plutonium.

Due to the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the Japanese power companies with nuclear reactors that used mixed oxide (MOX) fuels consisting of a mixture of reprocessed plutonium and uranium suspended their operations. That, in turn, forced the closure of the British factory that manufactured the fuel in August 2011.Given that Japanese electric power companies were its largest customers, that created a backlog of stored plutonium.

On the contrary, after the Fukushima nuclear accident, Germany decided to decommission all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. Until then, it still has more than five tons of plutonium in Britain in the form of powder that it intended to turn into MOX fuel.

Germany hit upon the idea of a “swap.” It suggested exchanging its plutonium in Britain with plutonium from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, stored in France that could then be turned into MOX fuel at the factory in Marcoule. It also meant the plutonium had to travel shorter distances and was more easily secured.

The plutonium exchange was convenient for TEPCO as well. It is still uncertain when, or if, the utility can restart its idled nuclear reactors. Therefore, even if it processes the plutonium into MOX fuels in France and then transports them back to Japan, they still have the problem of storage until they can be used.

On the other hand, Japan will continue to store its unused plutonium in Britain.

The nuclear fuel recycling program was touted as a “dream” system, whereby use of plutonium in a fast breeder reactor would generate more fuel than the amount consumed.The world has learned that reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium is too costly to be commercially viable. Reprocessing also involves the risk of nuclear proliferation.The United States and Germany were quick in backing out of a fuel recycling program.

By contrast, Japan is planning to soon start operations at a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, to activate a nuclear fuel recycling program in earnest. In addition, Tokyo still pins its hopes on developing a fast breeder reactor, although many other countries have given up on similar plans.

Japan cannot decide to pull out of the nuclear fuel recycling program because doing so would make it impossible for the country to continue operating its 50 nuclear reactors. If the stockpile of spent fuel, currently lying in storage pools at nuclear plants, was to stop being a resource and be rebranded as waste, those storage pools would quickly fill up unless dumping grounds are located. That is leaving Japan with no other option but to stick to the unrealistic policy of planning to reprocess all spent nuclear fuel.
<Media Report>
Fukushima accident has ripple effect in worldwide nuclear industry (Asahi Newspaper)

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