Japan’s nuclear future
Rokkasho and a hard place
The government’s fudge on its nuclear future remains unconvincing
Nov 10th 2012 | ROKKASHO | from the print edition
THIS remote north-eastern coastal village in Aomori prefecture would delight a North Korean or Iranian spy. Not because of the rolling countryside, but the uranium-enrichment facility, the plant undergoing testing to make nuclear fuel by reprocessing spent uranium and plutonium, and the stash of a good part of Japan’s stockpiles of more than nine tonnes of separated plutonium—enough, experts say, to make more than 1,000 nuclear warheads.
The plant plays a strong hand, though its completion is 15 years behind schedule and it has been a financial black hole.
Government officials say that without Rokkasho, Japan might swiftly have to abandon nuclear power for good. The plant is supposed to process the spent fuel that is backed up in temporary storage tanks at nuclear-power plants. If that waste is not processed, and no agreement is reached on where to store it more permanently, safety concerns would only grow. “Without Rokkasho, we would not get approval to restart the other reactors—not ever,” says a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Since the country’s reactors were shut down, the political establishment has quietly hoped that a looming electricity shortage will turn voters back on to nuclear power.
Then comes the international dimension. Officials say that when the DPJ made its commitment to phase out nuclear power, the United States, as well as Britain and France, expressed serious concern. Partly, they raised proliferation fears, one official says. If Japan, with the largest separated plutonium stockpile of any official non-nuclear-weapons state, carried on reprocessing spent fuel while phasing out the plants, then it would send the wrong message to potential nuclear rogue states, the Americans argued. To overcome that worry, the government quickly reassured Japan’s friends that the 2030s date was more of an objective than a commitment.