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The plutonium dilemma – Japan and UK

What should be done with Japan’s plutonium now stored in the UK? ~ Research trip report. BY   by Caitlin Stronell, CNIC

From September 11 to 21, Ban Hideyuki and Caitlin Stronell from CNIC visited the UK in order to survey opinions on what should be done with Japan’s 21.2 tons of plutonium  presently stored at the Sellafield facility in the UK. As Japan does not have an operating reprocessing plant, spent fuel was shipped to the UK and France for reprocessing and fabrication into MOX fuel from the late 1970s. Including Japan’s 21 tons, a total of approximately 140 tons of separated plutonium are held in the UK, which has offered to take ownership of foreign owned plutonium on its soil, subject to acceptable commercial terms. There have already been several such cases of ownership transfers of plutonium. (For example, in January 2017 the UK took ownership of 600 kg of plutonium previously owned by a Spanish utility and 5 kg previously owned by a German organization.)

Last year Japan’s Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) announced that a dialogue concerning plutonium between the UK and Japan had begun. Although the details of this dialogue have not been released, ownership transfer may well be one of the discussion points. If Japan does go through with the ownership transfer, it will be an admission that the plutonium, which it has spent vast sums on extracting from the spent fuel, is not a precious resource at all, but material that now has to be disposed of, again at large cost. This would be another heavy blow against Japan’s reprocessing policy. However, how do people in the UK feel about accepting 21 tons of Japanese plutonium? This was what we tried to find out on our research trip.

Closely related to the issue of plutonium in both Japan and the UK is the issue of nuclear waste and we also wanted to find out about how the UK is planning to deal with this issue, especially in terms of siting a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF).  Plans to site the GDF in Cumbria were rejected by the Council in 2013 and since then the national government has introduced a new system where smaller communities are able to request that they be considered as a GDF site. We wanted to find out how people were reacting to this and what the prospects are for the government being able to successfully site a GDF under this system.

We spoke to a large range of people directly concerned with these issues, of course anti-nuclear activists, but also a scientist involved in research on direct disposal methods for plutonium, as well as a number of people who work at Sellafield and local councilors for the area. Their answers to the question of what to do with Japan’s 21 tons of plutonium were varied and, in some cases, a little unexpected. For example, I was expecting that Prof. Neil Hyatt of Sheffield University, who is conducting cutting edge research on plutonium disposal, would be more open to accepting Japan’s plutonium, but he expressed some hesitation, saying that if the UK government agrees to take ownership of such a large amount of plutonium, it will break trust with local people by increasing their waste burden.

Divided opinions

We also noticed a split opinion between the two Cumbrian Councillors we interviewed. Cumbria is the county where the Sellafield Site is located and the nuclear industry obviously plays an important part in the local economy and politics………

The NDA is also tasked with siting the GDF for radioactive waste, which has proved to be a difficult task indeed, as it is all over the world, including in Japan where little progress has been made. There have been three attempts so far in the UK to try to decide on a site for the GDF, none of which have yielded results and so a new process for finding a GDF site began in January 2019.  This process allows any community, no matter how small, to express an interest in starting a dialogue regarding hosting a GDF.  …….

These and many other campaigns led by local communities show that the authorities and industry claims of transparency and safety cannot be trusted and in this sense it was easy to understand comments by Cr. Celia Tibble regarding the public reaction if the UK government were to accept Japanese plutonium. It would be seen as another lie and breach of trust…….


I thought that there were many similarities between the situation in Japan and in the UK regarding nuclear fuel cycle policy. Both countries must deal with massive amounts of plutonium, extracted at huge cost and risk, which now has no apparent use. Both the governments of Japan and the UK try to convince themselves and the world that it can be used as MOX fuel, but without a fabrication plant or sufficient MOX reactors, this solution is totally unconvincing. In the UK, it seems at least some industry people are facing up to this reality. In Japan, however, the government, at least at a policy level, hasn’t even faced up to the reality that plutonium is not a resource. Transferring ownership of its 21 tons of plutonium held in Sellafield to the UK would be an important step in facing up to this reality and could open the door to more practical and constructive discussions on how to reduce the plutonium stockpile. These discussions will not be easy and require an honest and concerted effort on the part of local and national governments, industry, communities and citizens.


February 17, 2020 - Posted by | - plutonium, Japan, UK

1 Comment »

  1. Why not ship Japan’s 21 tons of plutonium back to Japan and simply dock and abandon the ship in a Japanese harbor?

    Comment by terrence o'neill | February 17, 2020 | Reply

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