The Plutonium economy

Ever since the United States and the League of Nations imposed a fuel embargo on Japan for its military adventures in China during the late 1930s, Japanese politicians have lived in fear of being cut off from vital oil supplies. In those days the fuel shortage provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and its oil fields. Today Japan is still heavily dependent on imports of crude oil and liquified natural gas (LNG) from the Middle East and South East Asia. This has spurred the country to significant investments into nuclear energy. Some 40% of the electricity generated in Japan now comes from uranium. Yet it is not entirely clear that this policy is rational or productive.

For one, electricity from nuclear power plants could never keep the country from grinding to a halt if all its trucks and cars were deprived of liquid fuels, nor is there enough generating capacity to keep Japanese houses warm in winter if gas supplies were to stop. The investment in nuclear power is more of a token gesture designed to make that pre-war generation of politicians and bureaucrats feel good than an actual safeguard in case of a major war.

One of the more questionable aspects of the Japanese nuclear industry are its attempts to become independent of uranium imports. Japan currently imports about 9,000 metric tons per year of uranium oxide for nuclear fuel. The primary suppliers are Australia, the United States and Canada.

In the 1970s, when many countries were building new nuclear power stations to reduce their dependency on oil imports, there were serious concerns about a coming shortage of uranium to keep all those power stations going. This led to several countries pursuing the development of a new type of nuclear power station known as "fast breeder reactor" (FBR). In theory a FBR can "breed" more new plutonium fuel than it uses uranium or plutonium fuel while generating electrity.

However, there were many problems with this unproven technology. The USA abandoned their own efforts for fear of nuclear proliferation, as FBRs produce waepons grade material. France and Russia shut down their FBRs after serious accidents. Great Britain discontinued its FBR because of economic problems. Germany constructed an FBR in cooperation with Belgium and the Netherlands but decided to scrap it without ever starting it up. Why is it that Japan continued its efforts which culminated in the Monju accident, but those other countries abandonded this technology?

As it turns out, none of the conditions foreseen when FBRs were initially designed ever materialized. Not only is there no long term shortage of fossil fuels, uranium prices have not exploded either. After the 1979 accident at Three Miles Island (Harrisburg), orders for new nuclear power stations all but dried up in many countries. The 1986 explosion and fire in a nuclear power station in Chernobyl (Ukraine) which led to massive radioactive contamination in Eastern and Central Europe further turned public mood against an expansion of nuclear energy. At the same time the projected doubling of electricity demand every ten years did not happen either. Increases in efficiencies and ecological mindedness have led to a levelling-off of usage. New efficient fossil fuel generating technologies such as combined cycle power stations and LNG-fired gas turbines are undercutting expensive nuclear power stations and have led to them becoming uncompetitive.

There is now a glut in the uranium market. Uranium mines were developed in the 1970s and 1980s but demand has remained flat. "Yellow cake" uranium concentrate can be bought for one third to one fourth of what it cost a few years ago.

This leads us to some very interesting math. Over the last three years, the cost of uranium averaged less than US$20/kg. This means that uranium fuel costs for Japan amount to less than US$180 million per year. The construction cost of the Monju FBR and the nuclear reprocessing plant in Rokkasho (Aomori) are estimated at $6 billion and $20 billion respectively. If instead of wasting that sum on these two projects Japan had spent it by stockpiling cheap Australian uranium, it would have ended up with enough uranium to keep its 45 nuclear power stations going for 144 years, without all the complications of dealing with tons of weapons grade plutonium and the increased accident risks of FBRs and nuclear waste factories.

The MOX Myth: A report from the Netherlands that details the numerous problems with using plutonium for power generation.

Monju Problems: A thread that started before the 1997 Monju accident and outlined the problems in detail.

The Mihama Accident: A burst steam pipe in a Japanese reactor that killed 4 workers had not been inspected for 27 year.

The Tokaimura Accident: About the 1999 accident in the JCO nuclear fuel factory.

TEPCO Scandal: Power company punished for faking critical safety check.

Original video taken after the 1995 Monju sodium fire:

Japanese Fast Breeder Reactor Program (

Rokkasho and Japan's Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy (

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