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Ongoing Nuclear Security Summit sheds light on plutonium problems

AIKEN, South Carolina -- Close attention is now focused on the difficulty of dealing with the stockpiles of plutonium accumulating around the world as the Nuclear Security Summit opened in Washington on March 31.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who has won the Nobel Peace Prize for pursuing a world without nuclear weapons, is hosting the last Nuclear Security Summit before the end of his second term.

During the conference, the Japanese and U.S. governments are expected to emphasize that the two countries are stepping up efforts to strengthen nuclear security by returning plutonium for research purposes and highly enriched uranium that Washington has provided to Japan as pledged.

However, plutonium has nowhere to go even in the United States. A growing number of residents of South Carolina, which accepts plutonium from Japan and other countries, are voicing opposition to disposal in the state.

Rick Osbon, mayor of Aiken, South Carolina, voices opposition to using the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in the city as a final disposal site for nuclear materials, though he does not object to storing such substances there over a long period. Plutonium and other nuclear materials from Ibaraki Prefecture are expected to be brought to the site as early as May.

The Savannah River Site used to produce plutonium and other materials for nuclear weapons. However, its role has changed since the end of the Cold War. The site stores plutonium made redundant by U.S. and Russian arms reductions. Moreover, the facility accepts nuclear materials from overseas to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation, such as theft by terrorists.

Aiken and Augusta, Georgia host atomic power stations and other nuclear-related facilities. Four nuclear reactors under construction in the country are in these two states.

Despite South Carolina's close connections to nuclear energy, Gov. Nikki Haley urged the energy secretary to suspend transport of nuclear substances to the state or change their destination. This is because of fears that plutonium and nuclear waste brought to the state could be stored permanently as even the U.S. cannot find a final disposal site easily.

A 56-year-old Aiken resident said locals' attitude to hosting the Savannah River Site has changed. He says locals had believed that they were playing a part in the U.S. nuclear strategy and contributing to the defense of their country. Noting that they are now contributing more to the nuclear waste business than to nuclear non-proliferation, he expressed concerns that the city could end up being a final disposal site.

The Savannah River Site houses 13 metric tons of plutonium and other materials extracted from nuclear warheads. These will be joined by the 331 kilograms of plutonium being brought from Japan.

The U.S. Department of Energy has pledged to shift six tons out of the 13 of plutonium stored at the Savannah River Site to an experimental final disposal facility in New Mexico. However, the test facility has been shut down since a 2014 fire and radiation leak.

Alarmed by the governor's "revolt," the energy department announced that it will reopen the experimental facility by the end of this year. However, it remains unclear where the remaining seven tons will be accepted.

Some observers have suggested that the governor's "revolt" is a protest against the Obama administration's decision to suspend works on a uranium-plutonium mixed-oxide fuel processing facility under construction at the Savannah River Site. In other words, they believe that Gov. Haley's actions are a political gambit launched because local political and business communities expect an economic boost from the facility. However, local residents are increasingly wary of the move.

The 31-year-old deputy leader of a local residents' panel formed to reflect citizens' opinions on the facility's management expressed concerns that radioactive waste is brought into the facility without any clear prospects of final disposal.

A 62-year-old member of the panel also said it would be unacceptable to local residents for radioactive substances to be stored permanently in the city.

Local media played up the news of the radioactive substance shipment from Japan.

Noting that the United States has abandoned reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, the 62-year-old panel member urged Japan not to increase its stockpile of plutonium any further.

Unlike plutonium for research purposes, Japan has adopted a policy of disposing of nuclear waste generated at nuclear plants on its own. However, Japan faces an even more difficult road to select a final disposal site than the United States.

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