ROKKASHO, Japan — More than 30 years ago, when its economy seemed invincible and the Sony Walkman was ubiquitous, Japan decided to build a recycling plant to turn nuclear waste into nuclear fuel. It was supposed to open in 1997, a feat of advanced engineering that would burnish its reputation for high-tech excellence and make the nation even less dependent on others for energy.
Now, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., the private consortium building the recycling plant, says it really is almost done. But there is a problem: Japan does not use much nuclear power any more. The country turned away from nuclear energy after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and only nine of its 35 reactors are operational.
It is a predicament with global ramifications. While waiting for the plant to be built, Japan has amassed a stockpile of 47 metric tons of plutonium, raising concerns about nuclear proliferation and Tokyo’s commitment to refrain from building nuclear arms even as it joins the United States in pressing North Korea to give up its arsenal.
In August, North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper accused Japan of accumulating plutonium “for its nuclear armament.”
Japan pledged for the first time this past summer to reduce the stockpile, saying the recycling plant would convert the plutonium into fuel for use in Japanese reactors. But if the plant opens as scheduled in four years, the nation’s hoard of plutonium could grow rather than shrink.
That is because only four of Japan’s working reactors are technically capable of using the new fuel, and at least a dozen more would need to be upgraded and operating to consume the plutonium that the recycling plant would extract each year from nuclear waste.
“At the end of the day, Japan is really in a vice of its own making,” said James M. Acton, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “There is no easy way forward, and all those ways forward have significant costs associated with it.”
A handful of countries reprocess nuclear fuel, including France, India, Russia and the United Kingdom. But the Japanese plan faces a daunting set of practical and political challenges, and if it does not work, the nation will be left with another problem: about 18,000 metric tons of nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel rods that it has accumulated and stored all these years.
Japan’s neighbors, most notably China, have long objected to the stockpile of plutonium, which was extracted from the waste during tests of the recycling plant and at a government research facility, as well as by commercial recycling plants abroad. Most of this plutonium is now stored overseas, in France and Britain, but 10 metric tons remain in Japan, more than a third of it in Rokkasho, the northeastern fishing town where the recycling plant is being built.
Japan says it stores its plutonium in a form that would be difficult to convert into weapons, and that it takes measures to ensure it never falls into the wrong hands. But experts are worried the sheer size of the stockpile — the largest of any country without nuclear weapons, and in theory enough to make 6,000 bombs — could be used to justify a nuclear buildup by North Korea and others in the region.
Any recycling plan that adds to the stockpile looks like “a route to weaponize down the road,” said Alicia Dressman, a nuclear policy specialist. “This is what really concerns Japan’s neighbors and allies.”
Japan maintains that its plutonium is for peaceful energy purposes and that it will produce only as much as it needs for its reactors. “We are committed to nonproliferation,” said Hideo Kawabuchi, an official at the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.
But the launch of the Rokkasho plant has been delayed so long — and popular opposition to restarting additional nuclear reactors remains so strong — that skepticism abounds over the plan to recycle the stockpile. Critics say Japan should concede the plant will not solve the problem and start looking for a place to bury its nuclear waste.
“You kind of look at it and say, ‘My God, it’s 30 years later, and that future didn’t happen,’ ” said Sharon Squassoni, a nonproliferation specialist at George Washington University. “It’s just wishful thinking about how this is going to solve their myriad problems.”
Engineers have repeatedly revised the design of the plant to address water leaks and earthquake safety, and it took years to develop a safe way to dispose of hazardous byproducts. After the Fukushima disaster, government regulators demanded even more safety measures.
Giving up on the recycling plant, though, would be politically difficult, not least because Aomori Prefecture, where it is, has threatened to send the 3,000 metric tons of nuclear waste stored here back to communities around the country with nuclear plants.
Pulling the plug would also deprive one of Japan’s poorest regions of an economic lifeline. Over the years, the central government has awarded nearly $3 billion in incentives to the prefecture, where political leaders reliably support Japan’s governing party. Even inoperative, the plant employs more than one in 10 residents in Rokkasho and accounts for more than half the town’s tax revenues.
“It is now indispensable for Rokkasho,” said Kenji Kudo, the fourth generation to run his family’s clothing distribution company, which sells uniforms and protective gear to the plant. As demand from local squid fishermen disappeared, he added, the plant “rescued our business.”
The town has also received more than $555 million in government subsidies for hosting the facility, including funding for a 680-seat concert hall, an international school with just eight students and a new pool and gym complex that opened last year.
There are small reminders that the munificence comes with some risk. A screen in the lobby of the concert hall reports the radiation level at 32 places around the prefecture, and a sign at a local nursing home warns residents not to use the baths “in case of nuclear disaster.”
Kaoru Sasaki, director of the nursing home, said she doubts the plant will ever operate given concerns about nuclear power around the country. “But we don’t talk about that among friends here,” she said. “It is so important to the community.”
The plant itself is sprawled across nearly 1,000 acres of farmland, surrounded by fields of solar panels and wind turbines. Some 6,000 workers are now installing steel nets to protect it against tornadoes and digging ditches for pipes to carry water from a swamp into its cooling towers. Inside a large control room, workers in turquoise jumpsuits mill about computer consoles, monitoring dormant machinery.
The final piece of the plant to come online will be a facility, now under construction, that will take a mix of plutonium and uranium and turn that into fuel. But no one knows what would happen if the government cannot persuade communities to reopen and upgrade more reactors to use this type of fuel.
“Our only plan right now is that we want to start reprocessing in 2021,” said Koji Kosugi, general manager for international cooperation and nonproliferation at Japan Nuclear Fuel. “But we do not yet know how it will be consumed. This is something that has to be worked out with the utilities and the Japanese government.”
One of the reasons Japan is so wedded to recycling may be that it does not want to confront the politically toxic question of what to do with its nuclear waste, much of which is being stored temporarily in cooling pools on the sites of its nuclear power plants.
Thomas M. Countryman, an Obama administration official who is now chairman of the nonpartisan Arms Control Association in Washington, said the Rokkasho plant is “in a sense a delaying tactic in order to put off the most difficult decision that any country has to face.”
One option, said Tatsujiro Suzuki, a nuclear scientist at Nagasaki University, is to turn Rokkasho itself into a nuclear waste storage facility.
Nuclear plants across Japan have already sent waste that cannot be recycled to Rokkasho — steel drums full of ash, contaminated filters, steel pipes and protective clothing. Huge concrete boxes holding the drums are lined up in vast dugouts on the grounds of the plant, and canisters holding highly radioactive waste are stacked nine deep in a cavernous underground room where only their bright orange lids poke out of the floor.
The government promised that the waste would only be stored here temporarily but never came up with a permanent plan. In Rokkasho, residents are still waiting for the recycling plant.
“If the government had asked the village to only accept waste in the first place,” said the mayor, Mamoru Toda, “I don’t think the village would have accepted it.”