June 18, 2015 / 6:04 AM / in 2 years

Japan faces dilemma over plutonium stored in France

TOKYO (Reuters) - Still dealing with the huge clean up after the Fukushima crisis and debating its future use of atomic energy, Japan now faces another nuclear conundrum – what to do with 16 tonnes of its plutonium sitting in France after being reprocessed there.

A worker looks through a thick glass window at part of the treatment of nuclear waste at the Areva Nuclear Plant of La Hague, near Cherbourg, western France, in this April 22, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/Files

The question will be among the issues that come under the spotlight on Thursday and Friday as nuclear proliferation experts meet with legislators and government officials in Tokyo.

With its reactor fleet shut down in the wake of Fukushima, Japan is unable to take fuel made from the plutonium at the moment and could be forced to find other countries to use it.

The matter has taken on greater urgency as Areva, the French nuclear company that owns the La Hague reprocessing facility holding the plutonium in western Normandy, faces billions of dollars of losses.

“In this whole mess (at Areva) we have a huge amount of Japanese plutonium,” said Mycle Schneider, an independent energy consultant, adding Japan would need to resolve the problem sooner rather than later.

An Areva spokesman said the company had long-standing contracts with Japanese utilities to take nuclear fuel made from the plutonium.

Frank von Hippel, one of the founders of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), a group of arms-control and proliferation experts, brought up the issue of Japan’s stock of plutonium overseas at a presentation to Japanese legislators, including ruling Liberal Democratic Party member Taro Kono.

“It is a big concern because we already have 10 tons” in Japan, Kono said when asked by Reuters after the presentation about the French stockpile and Areva’s financial woes. “If Areva needs some kind of money why don’t we just pay France to keep the plutonium over there.”

The IPFM argues the world’s growing inventory of plutonium from civilian use is a “clear and present danger” as it could be used in so-called dirty bombs.

Schneider said France would be one option, but that the cost would likely be high, especially as that country has its own stockpile to deplete. He did not give an exact cost.

“Giving its plutonium away and paying for it would expose the Japanese to the reality of plutonium as a liability rather than an asset,” said Schneider.

A precedent for that kind of deal could be set in Britain, where the government has offered to take ownership of 20 tonnes of Japanese plutonium stored at the Sellafield processing plant, according to the IPFM.

“This is a kind of win-win deal,” Tatsujiro Suzuki, a former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, told Reuters, before he made a presentation on spent fuel at the same meeting as Von Hippel on Thursday.

“The British side would make money and the Japanese would lose less,” said Suzuki.

Additional reporting by Geert De Clercq in Paris and Osamu Tsukimori in Tokyo; Editing by Joseph Radford and David Evans

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