TOKYO — The operator of Japan's nuclear fuel reprocessing plant said Monday it was postponing the opening to as late as September 2018, citing regulators' lengthy inspection procedures and time needed for safety upgrades.
The Rokkasho reprocessing plant in northern Japan has raised proliferation concerns because the plutonium it extracts from spent fuel — for the purpose of generating electricity — is enough to make thousands of nuclear bombs.
While the plant's delay could temporarily relieve the proliferation concerns, it also means spent fuel rods that are filling up storage pools in Japan have nowhere to go.
Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. said it was delaying the targeted completion of the reprocessing plant, which separates plutonium to be mixed with uranium for reuse as fuel, by as much as 2 1/2 years. The plant, initially planned to open in 2000, was most recently set to open in March 2016 following a series of technical problems.
JNFL president Kenji Kudo told reporters at the company's headquarters in Aomori, near Rokkasho, that a separate plant to produce plutonium-based MOX fuel had also been delayed, until sometime during the first half of fiscal 2019.
In another sign of uncertainty to Japan's nuclear fuel cycle ambitions, Japanese regulators have warned the science ministry to replace its scandal-plagued operator of a costly, mothballed plutonium-burning reactor in western Japan.
Japan already has about 47 tons of plutonium — 11 tons at home and the rest reprocessed in Britain and France — but no use for it, with most of its reactor fleet offline since the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
U.S. officials say Japan's reprocessing program sets a bad example and could prompt tension in east Asia.
Rokkasho's operator says around-the-clock U.N. surveillance at the plant would make illegal removal of plutonium impossible.
Experts including Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University theoretical physicist and advocate of nonproliferation, have urged Japan to stop spent fuel reprocessing. Von Hippel proposes storing spent fuel in safer and highly protected dry casks instead of uncontained cooling pools as an alternative until a final waste repository is found.
The government is promoting nuclear restarts as a vehicle to boost the economy, but also as a way to burn plutonium and reduce the stockpile.