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Plutonium from Japan to be disposed of underground in New Mexico

U.S.-bound plutonium that has recently been shipped out of Japan will be disposed of at a nuclear waste repository in New Mexico after being processed for “inertion” at the Savannah River Site atomic facility in South Carolina, according to an official of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

“The plutonium will be diluted into a less sensitive form at the SRS and then transported to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for permanent disposal deep underground,” said Ross Matzkin-Bridger in charge of the operation at the NNSA, a nuclear wing of the Department of Energy.

“The dilution process involves mixing the plutonium with inert materials that reduce the concentration of plutonium and make it practically impossible to ever purify again,” he told Kyodo News in a recent phone interview.

The official made the remarks ahead of the latest Nuclear Security Summit, sponsored by President Barack Obama, which began Thursday in Washington.

The fourth such meeting of world leaders is focused on how to secure weapons-usable nuclear materials all over the globe. The summit started after Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague, in which he called for “a world without nuclear weapons” and for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

At the previous summit in the Netherlands in March 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to return plutonium and highly enriched uranium upon request from the Obama administration, which is seeking to strengthen control of nuclear materials.

The removal of 331 kilograms of plutonium and hundreds of kilograms of HEU from the Fast Critical Assembly, a research facility located in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, was completed before the Nuclear Security Summit kicked off.

Japan received the plutonium and HEU fuels from the United States, Britain and France from the late 1960s to early 1970s for research purposes in the name of “Atoms for Peace.”

The nuclear fuel delivery, however, has generated controversy in South Carolina since it was reported that it was en route to the U.S. government-run SRS facility in the state.

South Carolina is “at risk of becoming a permanent dumping ground for nuclear materials,” Gov. Nikki Haley said in a recent letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, calling for the freight to be stopped or rerouted.

The final disposal at the WIPP, as described by Matzkin-Bridger, may defuse these local concerns in South Carolina.

The WIPP is a repository — about 660 meters underground — for permanently storing nuclear waste created by the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons program.

“The Department of Energy has signed a Record of Decision to implement our preferred option to prepare 6 metric tons of surplus plutonium from the SRS for permanent disposal at the WIPP near Carlsbad, New Mexico,” Matzkin-Bridger explained. “This includes all foreign plutonium that we bring to the United States under our nonproliferation programs.”

The HEU from Japan’s FCA will be “down-blended” to low enriched uranium at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, according to the official. In the future, LEU will be used for research purpose at research reactors both in the U.S. and Japan, possibly including the FCA.

“This project was accomplished on an accelerated timeline well ahead of schedule, thanks to the hard work and strong cooperation from both sides,” said a U.S.-Japan joint statement released Friday on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit.

“It furthers our mutual goal of minimizing stocks of HEU and separated plutonium,” the document added, emphasizing the importance of the operation in strengthening nuclear security.

In the statement, the Japanese government made a new pledge to remove and transfer HEU fuels from the Kyoto University Critical Assembly (KUCA), another Japanese research institute, to the United States for down-blending and “permanent threat reduction.”

“If the KUCA’s HEU reactor is successfully converted to a LEU unit, it will have a significant meaning for other reactors in the U.S. and European nations, which are pursuing to convert reactors for LEU,” Hironobu Unesaki, a professor at Kyoto University, said. “The KUCA could provide academic outputs for future LEU conversion process worldwide.”

Officials and specialists in both nations have praised the bilateral cooperation, which aims to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism through securing sensitive materials.

However, the materials recently transferred from Japan are only the tip of the iceberg. Currently, Japanese utilities possess over 47 metric tons of separated plutonium, which is equivalent to about 6,000 nuclear bombs.

At the last Nuclear Security Summit two years ago, Abe restated the nation’s international promise not to possess any plutonium that it has no use for. But the country’s stockpile of the nuclear material has since slightly increased.

A recent court injunction to suspend the operation of two plutonium-consuming reactors in Fukui Prefecture has made a solution for the plutonium problem more elusive.

April 4, 2016 - Posted by | Japan | , ,

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