Japan Could Reprocess Nuclear Fuel from Korea

The Japanese government is considering reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods from Korea, Vietnam and other Asian countries, the Tokyo Shimbun reported Sunday. Japan is the only country in the world that has no nuclear weapons but the facilities to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.

An advisory council to the Democratic Party of Japan in a report last May said reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods would "strengthen" Japan's diplomacy, security and the country's economy as well as "contribute to the peaceful use of atomic energy."

The report suggests using the Rokashomura nuclear reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture, which will become obsolete if Japan scraps all its own nuclear power plants in the 2030s.

Japan's Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi recently said that no concrete decision has been made to scrap the country's reprocessing facilities entirely. The Rokashomura facility reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from all nuclear plants in Japan.

Japan spent more than W30 trillion (US$1=W1,064) building the facility because the plutonium it extracts could be used to power the Monju sodium-cooled fast reactor in southwestern Japan.

But the continued operation of the Monju reactor is uncertain due to frequent malfunctions. The Japanese government has admitted that it may not be put into commercial use until 2050, prompting criticism that the Rokashomura facility was a colossal waste of money.

A bilateral nuclear energy pact between Washington and Tokyo allowing Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods expires in 2018. The U.S. could insist on revising the agreement so it prohibits further reprocessing.

The Tokyo Shimbun said talks between Seoul and Washington to revise their bilateral nuclear energy pact will serve as the bellwether for talks with Tokyo. The daily said the U.S. may ask Japan to reprocess spent fuel rods from Korea if it wants to continue, and that Tokyo would likely accept the offer.

Korea's capacity to store spent nuclear fuel rods reaches saturation point in 2016, and Seoul is seeking to reprocess its own spent nuclear fuel rods or to enrich uranium, but Washington is against the plans to forestall proliferation.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jan. 07, 2013 11:03 KST