Fukushima’s Dangerous Aftershocks

Japan is spooling up its nuclear reactors and piling up reprocessed fuel. And the tremors of these policy choices can be felt all the way in Iran.

BRIDGWATER, ENGLAND - MARCH 10:  A masked protester stands in front of flags at the gates to the Hinkley Point nuclear power station to mark the first anniversary of the Fukushima disaster in Japan on March 10, 2012 near Bridgwater, England. Protestors planned to blockade the site at Hinkley,  which is located on the Bristol Channel and has been earmarked for a potential new nuclear power station, for 24 hours starting today. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRIDGWATER, ENGLAND - MARCH 10: A masked protester stands in front of flags at the gates to the Hinkley Point nuclear power station to mark the first anniversary of the Fukushima disaster in Japan on March 10, 2012 near Bridgwater, England. Protestors planned to blockade the site at Hinkley, which is located on the Bristol Channel and has been earmarked for a potential new nuclear power station, for 24 hours starting today. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

On March 11, 2011, the Great Tohoku earthquake — with a staggering 9.0 magnitude — devastated Japan. I was in Tokyo, stepping off a subway train when the first waves of the earthquake rolled through the station. They weren’t violent, but they were enormous. The station swayed slowly like it was a ship, the undulations big enough that I backed up against a wall and then sat down. It was impossible to stand.

I’d been through earthquakes in Japan before. I felt several in the days leading up to March 11, earthquakes we now know were foreshocks of the coming catastrophe. I had learned to find comfort in the responses of my Japanese colleagues. One hit during a luncheon with officials from Japan’s plutonium reprocessing plant. I was shaken, but the nuclear energy officials took the smaller tremors in stride. It’s nothing, they smiled.

A few days later, in Tokyo, I saw something different in the faces of the people around me. I saw fear.

This earthquake was bigger than anything anyone had experienced. And you could see from their faces that they had no idea what the consequences would be. From Tokyo, the disaster unfolded slowly. Once an earthquake is over, what do you do? Where do you go? I tried to do a little shopping, which sounds very odd in retrospect, but found there were too many aftershocks. Eventually, the department store closed, and I walked back to my hotel. Tokyo looked unaffected — until I tried to get a drink before dinner. Outside, the buildings looked fine; inside they were a mess.

Only once I was back at the hotel did the scale of the destruction from the resulting tsunami become clear. And then, late at night, my friend Michael Cucek emailed to tell me that the tsunami had seriously damaged a nuclear power plant named Fukushima Daiichi.

“The alert on the nuclear reactors has been upgraded to a full-scale mandatory evacuation of all residents living within 3 kilometers of the Fukushima oceanside complex,” he wrote. “The hypothetical has become real.”

I thought he was exaggerating.

We all know what happened. The tsunami disabled the reactors’ cooling systems, letting units one, two, and three melt down. Japan assessed the accident as a Level 7 — the worst rating possible — on the International Nuclear Event Scale. It wasn’t quite as bad as Chernobyl, but that hardly made anyone feel safe. And the entirety of Japan’s nuclear industry paid the price.

Nuclear reactors periodically have to be shut down for maintenance. As these reactors shut down, local governments refused to grant permission for them to start up again. Eventually, all 44 of Japan’s remaining nuclear power reactors were shut down. And Japan — which once relied on nuclear energy for more than 20 percent of its electricity generation — had zero nuclear power. Until last week. On Aug. 14, Sendai-1 became the first reactor in Japan to send power to the electricity grid since 2013.

Despite a strong anti-nuclear sentiment among the public following the accident, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was committed to resuming reactor operations. His government hopes that the restart of electricity production at Sendai-1 will be followed by more nuclear reactors. Next up is unit two at the same site, slated for October.

The accident at Fukushima, however, has left lasting changes in Japan. Public opinion has turned against nuclear power, meaning that even if some reactors come back online, no one expects Japan to return to pre-Fukushima levels of nuclear power generation. There have been cultural changes, too. The salaryman’s uniform of a dark suit and white shirt has finally succumbed to a government-encouraged “cool biz” campaign to ditch air conditioning in favor of casual dress in warmer months.

The major test, however, concerns Japan’s long-running plan to take the used fuel from nuclear reactors and separate out the plutonium.

While most countries in the world have a once-through fuel cycle — fuel is burned in a reactor once, then placed into storage — Japan is one of the few countries trying to develop a so-called “closed” fuel cycle, in which the technicians separate plutonium from spent fuel and reuse it in the reactors.

Japan has constructed a multibillion-dollar reprocessing plant at a place called Rokkasho to separate this plutonium and turn it into fuel again. The plant was scheduled to become operational this fall, but the date has been pushed back (again) until the spring.

Japan’s decision to separate plutonium has always caused concern. Plutonium produced in civilian reactors can, despite what many people claim, be used to make nuclear weapons. While the plutonium is not ideal for an advanced state like the United States or, say, Japan — it would do in a pinch. For a state like Iran or North Korea, they’d find it A-OK.

As I have written before, I don’t believe Tokyo will ever build a bomb. And while security can always be improved, Japanese officials are understandably irked at being singled out.

A bigger concern, though, is what example Tokyo is about to set. The United States has campaigned for many years to discourage states from separating plutonium over fears of weaponization. The United States and its partners in the P5+1 (or E3/EU+3) have recently concluded a nuclear deal with Iran — maybe you’ve heard about that? — in which a key provision is that Iran must accept a 15-year commitment not to reprocess spent fuel from its nuclear reactors. Iran also stated that it does not intend to do so after 15 years, but this leaves the door slightly ajar. If you want to know why Iran, Vietnam, and other countries aren’t willing to completely abandon reprocessing, look no further than Rokkasho. Nuclear engineers keep promising the era of recycling plutonium is just around the corner. Japan is the poster child for a future of boundless energy based on plutonium.

Now, I must hasten to point out that nuclear engineers have been making grand promises about the potential of plutonium from the get-go of the nuclear era. They said it in the United States until Fermi-1 — an experimental “fast” reactor designed to produce lots of plutonium — melted down, giving us a good book and a great Gil Scott-Heron song by the same name, We Almost Lost Detroit. And they said it in Japan starting in the 1960s, when the country adopted its first policy on a closed fuel cycle. While enthusiasm for making boatloads of plutonium declined in the United States, mirroring the general decline in enthusiasm for nuclear power after the Three Mile Island accident, Japan has remained committed to reprocessing its spent fuel. This model inspires nuclear engineers in other countries who argue that they can learn from Japan’s mistakes and ask policymakers if they want to be left behind when Tokyo is finally so close to making the long-sought breakthrough. Advocates of reprocessing plutonium in places like China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan have all pointed to the Japanese model to justify their own enthusiasm for reprocessing, despite mixed results.

In fact, the Japanese model has been a disaster. Officials in Tokyo are looking to reduce investment in their own “fast” reactor near Monju. Tokyo now plans to mix recovered plutonium and uranium into something called “Mixed Oxide fuel,” or MOX fuel, which can be burned in normal reactors. MOX fuel, though, is more expensive than regular fuel. In Europe, where France has led the campaign for MOX fuel, it is piling up where it is being produced faster than utilities can use it.

While the economics of reprocessing have consistently been shown to make little sense — and here the proponents will howl with their own studies and promises, just as cigarette companies swore smoking is good for you — it’s not easy for a government to write off a multibillion-dollar facility as a sunk cost. Japan has created an entire bureaucracy dedicated to the idea of a closed fuel cycle, created thousands of jobs premised on this idea, and worked to sell it to the local communities that will be involved with the processing and eventual storage of the used nuclear fuel. While we can debate whether reprocessing transforms nuclear waste into something less awful, reprocessing performs a kind of political alchemy, transmogrifying nuclear waste into used fuel awaiting recycling. Having a technical narrative about reprocessing — men in white lab coats with clipboards managing the used nuclear fuel — helps a local community see itself as part of something grander than a waste dump.

It seems unlikely that we will persuade Japan to abandon reprocessing, but perhaps Tokyo can set a better example?

Tokyo planned to begin operating its reprocessing facility this fall, though that has been delayed — yet again — into the spring, around the time of the next nuclear security summit. At the moment, Japan has completed neither the facility that will turn the plutonium into MOX fuel nor any reactors that could use this fuel. The plutonium will simply pile up. This is a terrible example for others. Imagine the discomfort in Washington if Iran began to accumulate large stockpiles of plutonium with no clear purpose.

Japan already has a policy that requires it not to accumulate excess plutonium, but the nearly 10 tons of plutonium sitting around in Japan suggests maybe that policy could use some tightening up. The problem is that the policy requires only that Japanese utilities have a general idea of what they might do with the plutonium. They are not required to link production of plutonium with demand for it.

Some of my colleagues in Japan, however, have been advocating that if, and when, Rokkasho begins to operate, the operation of the plant should be linked to actual demand for the plutonium it produces. They argue, quite reasonably, that Japan should draw down its existing stockpile of plutonium before producing more, then only produce additional plutonium at a rate Japan’s utilities can use.

The advantage of such a policy, in addition to obeying simple economic concepts like supply and demand, is that Japan would not accumulate a massive stockpile of plutonium with no specific purpose. That’s an important model to set, particularly since the United States is trying desperately to discourage countries like South Korea and Taiwan from following Japan’s model. Oh, and 15 years will go by quickly. It won’t be long before we’re back at the table trying to persuade the Iranians that stockpiling plutonium is a terrible idea.

This is an enormous opportunity for the Japanese leadership. It would also represent a real change in policy, which I know is hard. But we are in real peril if other countries follow the example Japan is setting now and begin to pile up plutonium. I think back to that afternoon with officials from Rokkasho, when the first little quake roiled our lunch.

These officials, who were so calm about that little earthquake and never for a moment saw the catastrophe it foretold, are the same people who are confident that Japan can secure its growing stockpile of plutonium and reassure its neighbors. They are confident that the concerns of others are merely fleeting tremors that can be laughed off like so many little earthquakes before. I believed them then, on March 9. I am not so sure I do now.

Photo Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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