Tag Archives: MOX reactors

Demise: nuclear plutonium alive

South Carolina is suing the U.S. government to recover $100 million in fines it says the Department of Energy owes the state for failing to remove one metric ton of plutonium stored there.  The lawsuit was filed on August 7, 2017.

Congress approved fines of $1 million per day for the first 100 days of each year through 2021, beginning 2016, if the weapons-grade plutonium was not removed from the Savannah River Site at the state’s border with Georgia, the attorney general’s office said.   The federal government cannot break its obligations and “leave South Carolina as the permanent dumping ground for weapons-grade plutonium” said in the complaint.

Built in the 1950s, the U.S.-owned Savannah River Site processes and stores nuclear materialss.  A U.S. treaty with Russia in 2000 [The Plutonium Disposition Agreement]* required each country to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, left over from the Cold War.

The United States began building a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility, known as the MOX project, at the Savannah River Site to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium by mixing it with uranium to form safer fuel pellets for use in commercial nuclear reactors.  But the project is years overdue and billions over budget, and the technology for the new fuel fabrication is not fully developed. Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2016 pulled out of the plutonium pact amid rising tensions over Ukraine and Syria.  The Trump administration proposed in the fiscal year 2018 budget to scrap the project and pursue diluting the plutonium and disposing it underground, an alternative called for by the Obama administration.

Excerpts from   Harriet McLeod, South Carolina seeks $100 million from U.S. over plutonium removal, Reuters,  Aug. 9, 2017

*through which the United States and Russia agreed to immobilize 68 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

Why Japan Tries to Like its Monju

Monju. image from wikipedia

Monju  is a Japanese sodium-cooled fast reactor, located in Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant, Fukui Prefecture..  Monju is a sodium cooled, MOX-fueled, loop-type reactor with three primary coolant loops…The reactor has been inoperative for most of the time since it has been built [due to accidents and resulting public suspicion].  On December 8, 1995, the reactor suffered a serious accident. Intense vibration caused a thermowell inside a pipe carrying sodium coolant to break… [T]he sodium was not radioactive. However, there was massive public outrage in Japan when it was revealed that Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC), the semigovernmental agency then in charge of Monju, had tried to cover up the extent of the accident and resulting damage. This coverup included falsifying reports and the editing of a videotape taken immediately after the accident, as well as issuing a gag order that aimed to stop employees revealing that tapes had been edited.

More  Problems

On 16 February 2012 Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agenbcy reported that a sodium-detector malfunctioned.

On 30 April 2013 an operating error rendered two of the three emergency generators unusable

On Monday 16 September 2013 before 3 a.m. the data transmission of the reactor stopped to the government’s Emergency Response Support System.

Excerpts from Wikipedia

A panel of experts set up by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has begun discussions on what should be done about the Monju reactor. The panel is expected to reach a conclusion by the summer 2016.  Since 2012, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has repeatedly conducted on-the-spot inspections of Monju, which is now operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA). Every time these inspections were conducted, however, they have identified faulty maintenance checks of the reactor and others that violated related laws and regulations.,Monju’s maintenance and inspection program was drawn up in 2009. What is a serious issue is the program had a large number of defects.About 50,000 pieces of equipment must be inspected at the reactor. Without a carefully thought-out plan, these inspections will be far from smooth. It is crucial to review the maintenance and inspection plan, which is the foundation for ensuring safety…

Under the government’s Strategic Energy Plan, Monju is considered a key research base to reduce the volume of nuclear waste. The development of nuclear reactors similar to Monju is under way in Russia, China and India, as uranium resources can be effectively utilized with the fast breeder reactor.  Can Japan afford to stop development of the fast breeder reactor and let these countries lead the way? This is indeed a crucial moment.

New organization needed to regain public trust in Monju management, The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan 18, 2015

Plutonium Production after Fukushima; the link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons

Last year’s tsunami disaster in Japan clouded the nation’s nuclear future, idled its reactors and rendered its huge stockpile of plutonium useless for now. So, the industry’s plan to produce even more has raised a red flag.  Nuclear industry officials say they hope to start producing a half-ton of plutonium within months, in addition to the more than 35 tons Japan already has stored around the world. That’s even though all the reactors that might use it are either inoperable or offline while the country rethinks its nuclear policy after the tsunami-generated Fukushima crisis.

“It’s crazy,” said Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel, a leading authority on nonproliferation issues and a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology. “There is absolutely no reason to do that.”  Japan’s nuclear industry produces plutonium — which is strictly regulated globally because it also is used for nuclear weapons — by reprocessing spent, uranium-based fuel in a procedure aimed at decreasing radioactive waste that otherwise would require long-term storage.  The industry wants to reprocess more to build up reserves in anticipation of when it has a network of reactors that run on a next-generation fuel that includes plutonium and that can be reused in a self-contained cycle — but that much-delayed day is still far off.  Japanese officials argue that, once those plans are in place, the reactors will draw down the stockpile and use up most of it by 2030.  “There is no excess plutonium in this country,” said Koichi Imafuku, an official at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy. “It’s not just lying around without purpose.”

In the meantime, the country’s post-Fukushima review of nuclear policy is pitting a growing number of critics who want to turn away from plutonium altogether against an entrenched nuclear industry that wants to push forward with it.  Other countries, including the United States, have scaled back the separation of plutonium because it is a proliferation concern and is more expensive than other alternatives, including long-term storage of spent fuel.

Fuel reprocessing remains unreliable and it is questionable whether it is a viable way of reducing Japan’s massive amounts of spent fuel rods, said Takeo Kikkawa, a Hitotsubashi University professor specializing in energy issues.  “Japan should abandon the program altogether,” said Hideyuki Ban, co-director of a respected anti-nuclear Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center. “Then we can also contribute to the global effort for nuclear non-proliferation.”

Von Hippel stressed that only two other countries reprocess on a large scale: France and Britain, and Britain has decided to stop. Japan’s civilian-use plutonium stockpile is already the fifth-largest in the world, and it has enough plutonium to make about 5,000 simple nuclear warheads, although it does not manufacture them.  Because of inherent dangers of plutonium stockpiles, government regulations require industry representatives to announce by March 31 how much plutonium they intend to produce in the year ahead and explain how they will use it.

But, for the second year in a row, the industry has failed to do so. They blame the government for failing to come up with a long-term policy after Fukushima, but say they nevertheless want to make more plutonium if they can get a reprocessing plant going by October.  Kimitake Yoshida, a spokesman for the Federation of Electric Power Companies, said the plutonium would be converted into MOX — a mixture of plutonium and uranium — which can be loaded back into reactors and reused in a cycle. But technical glitches, cost overruns and local opposition have kept Japan from actually putting the moving parts of that plan into action.

In the meantime, Japan’s plutonium stockpile — most of which is stored in France and Britain — has swelled despite Tokyo’s promise to international regulators not to produce a plutonium surplus.  Its plutonium holdings have increased fivefold from about 7 tons in 1993 to 37 tons at the end of 2010. Japan initially said the stockpile would shrink rapidly in early 2000s as its fuel cycle kicked in, but that hasn’t happened.

Critics argue that since no additional spent fuel is being created, and there are questions about how the plutonium would be used, this is not a good time start producing more. They also say it makes no sense for Japan to minimize its plutonium glut by calling it a “stockpile” rather than a “surplus.”  “It’s a simple accounting trick,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s laughable. And it sends the wrong signal all around the world.”

Officials stress that, like other plutonium-holding nations, Japan files a yearly report detailing its stockpile with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it has repeatedly failed to live up to its own schedules for how the plutonium will be used.  From 2006 until three years ago, the nuclear industry said the plutonium-consuming MOX fuel would be used in 16-18 conventional reactors “in or after” 2010. In fact, only two reactors used MOX that year. By the time of the earthquake and tsunami last year, the number was still just three — including one at the Fukushima plant.  In response to the delays, the industry has simply revised its plans farther off into the future. It is now shooting for the end of fiscal 2015.

“There really is a credibility problem here,” said Princeton’s von Hippel, who also is a member of the independent International Panel on Fissile Materials. “They keep making up these schedules which are never realized. I think the ship is sinking beneath them.”

By ERIC TALMADGE and MARI YAMAGUCHI, Japan to make more plutonium despite big stockpile, Associated Press, June 2, 2012

See also http://www.jnfl.co.jp/english/