The Takahama nuclear plant received a shipment of MOX fuel yesterday. The power company has hinted they intend to use the shipment originally produced before the March 2011 nuclear disaster. Green Action Japan points out a number of ways using this fuel is in violation of existing statutes in Japan and that the new regulator has not established standards for MOX use.
While the power companies in Japan are pushing for restarts and continuation of the MOX program, the US is poised to end their MOX program. The US has dabbled with MOX fuel over the decades. In the 1970’s under an agreement with a private company the US began building a reprocessing facility at Barnwell SC to make MOX from used reactor fuel. The project was ended after government accountability investigations found the project was a huge waste of government funds and that reprocessing to make MOX was a proliferation risk.
In the 1980’s the US began talks with Russia on ways to deal with plutonium the US feared could fall into unwanted hands. The US first choice to solve the plutonium problem was to vitrify it (put it into melted glass) making it impossible to extract, then burying it in deep geologic repositories. Russia wanted a MOX program and was able to get the US to agree to this, beginning the new US MOX plant at Savannah River. In later negotiations on the same agreement with Russia the US allowed Russia to then use this MOX fuel in their planned fast breeder reactor program. This would create a situation where Russia would end up with more plutonium than they started with. This is the current state of the US – Russia agreement.
The US MOX plant at Savannah River has been plagued by problems, cost over runs and delays. The plant is being contracted in part by the French nuclear company Areva. The US sent some of the bomb grade plutonium they hoped to use for MOX fuel to Areva’s facilities in France for a test run. Areva found that creating MOX fuel out of bomb plutonium was much harder than making it out of spent reactor fuel. This complex problem has added to the failures at Savannah River.
Now the US is considering finally ending the Savannah River MOX plant as budget woes take over. In the effort to cut budgets the MOX plant is an obvious one to cut. It has no actual use since no reactors in the US are capable, licensed or interested in using MOX fuel. South Carolina politicians have been trying to save the plant from budget cuts while at the same time professing to be defenders against government waste.
The MOX fuel just delivered to Japan cost the power utility 5 times as much as conventional uranium nuclear fuel at 1.3 billion yen per ton. The Japanese government mandates the MOX program and eventually planned to put MOX fuel in the Monju fast breeder reactor. This is the same technology Russia has been criticized for because it creates more plutonium than it consumes.
This week the Mainichi obtained secret Japanese government documents that showed the US put extreme pressure on Japan last year to continue their MOX program and also Rokkasho and Monju. Rokkasho allows Japan to eventually extract plutonium from spent fuel. Monju allows Japan to create more plutonium than it consumes. What was not even on the table in these US “non-proliferation” efforts towards Japan was vitrification, the US’s own first choice for safe disposal of plutonium to prevent proliferation risks.
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