What is "Pluthermal" ?
"Pluthermal" is a Japanese word which combines two English words, "plutonium" and "thermal". Pluthermal refers to the utilization of 'plutonium' fuel in commercial ('thermal') nuclear power plants. The fuel is commonly referred to as plutonium uranium mixed oxide fuel, or MOX fuel. Japanese government policy calls for electric utilities to use MOX fuel in 16-18 nuclear power plants by the year 2010.
Japan's pluthermal program was originally scheduled to get under way by the end of 1999. However the falsification of quality control data for Japanese MOX fuel by the British fuel manufacturer BNFL in December 1999, a referendum in Kariwa village in Niigata Prefecture held in May 2001, and an on-going energy policy review by the Fukushima Prefecture government have prevented MOX fuel from being loaded at any of the nuclear power plants thus far.
Why have a Pluthermal Program?
A decade ago, the pluthermal program was called an interim program, a 'bridge' to consume plutonium until fast breeder reactors were developed for full-scale plutonium utilization. However, since the 1995 accident at the prototype fast breeder reactor Monju, Japan's fast-breeder reactor development program has come to a standstill, and there are no concrete plans to build a commercial fast-breeder reactor in sight.
Over the last several years the government and electric utilities have argued that the pluthermal program is a method of recycling precious resources. They claim that it is in Japan's best interest to extract the uranium and plutonium contained in spent nuclear fuel rather than directly disposing of it as some countries do. The argument used is that Japan is an energy poor country which needs to conserve uranium resources and use plutonium for energy security purposes.
Recently promoters of the pluthermal program have begun to argue that the program is also necessary in order to reduce the amount of surplus plutonium accumulated as a result of overseas reprocessing.
Since mid- 2001, the Japanese government and electric utilities have put forward yet another argument for the pluthermal program. They claim that without the pluthermal program Japanese nuclear power plants would be unable to continue to produce power. The government and electric utilities are threatening residents who live near nuclear power plants and the general public by telling them that opposing the pluthermal program will force reactor shutdowns because without this program spent nuclear fuel will not be able to be sent to the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant.
Status of MOX fuel utilization
|Kansai Electric||Takahama Unit 4||Fukui||Dec.99||BNFL falsified quality control data|
|Tokyo Electric||Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3||Fukushima||Dec.99||governor objection and energy policy review|
|Tokyo Electric||Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Unit 3||Niigata||Feb.00||citizens object to MOX fuel use through a local referendum|
In all three prefectures scheduled to use MOX fuel (see above), there is considerable opposition to the use of the fuel. However, in spite of this wide-spread opposition, the utilities and the government continue to promote the program without the consent of the local residents.
What is Wrong with the Pluthermal Program?
The use of MOX fuel increases the risk and severity of a nuclear accident. When using MOX fuel, the control rods' capacity to function is reduced and power output is less stable and harder to control. The Japanese government claims that there has been many years of MOX fuel utilization experience in Europe, but fails to inform the Japanese public that experience with MOX fuel is minimal when compared to uranium fuel. Importantly, the government fails to inform the public that the scale of MOX fuel use in Japan will be unprecedented. There will be a higher concentration of plutonium in the fuel, a higher burn-up rate ---experimentation has shown that there are serious safety concerns with high burn-ups, and no reactor adaptations such as increasing the number of control rods.
Does Japan really need the Pluthermal Program?
Although the government and utilities claim that the pluthermal program would recoup precious resources and is therefore necessary for securing Japan's energy supply, the actual quantity of uranium saved would be negligible, and the cost of fabricating and shipping MOX fuel is far greater that uranium fuel.
As for addressing the problem of the surplus Japanese plutonium in Europe, it would make much more sense to immobilize it rather than burn it as MOX fuel while reprocessing even greater quantities of plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel.
The real need for the Pluthermal Program
Then why have the Pluthermal Program? Although plutonium is a major liability for electric utilities, the pluthermal program remains in place because at present reprocessing facilities are the only place for Japanese electric utilities to send their spent nuclear fuel. Failing to carry out the pluthermal program would imply that there is no need for plutonium, thereby making the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant now being constructed in Aomori Prefecture unnecessary.
This would then leave the utilities with no place to send their spent nuclear fuel. If this were to happen, some of the reactors at nuclear power plant sites would have to be shut down since there would be no space to store the used fuel coming out of them.
Clearly, reprocessing and the pluthermal program are little more than a makeshift solution for Japan's nuclear waste disposal problems.