The U.S. government has expressed "grave concern" to Japanese officials over Tokyo’s spent nuclear fuel reprocessing program as it increases Japan's stockpile of plutonium and the risk of proliferation, according to a joint investigation by The Asahi Shimbun and the Center for Public Integrity, a U.S. nonprofit journalism organization.
With the nation's 48 nuclear reactors offline, the planned start-up of a plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, which will extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel, will only increase Japan’s already-growing stockpile of plutonium, U.S. nuclear policy experts said.
If the plant starts operations as early as this year, it would pose serious concerns about the Obama administration’s efforts to control nuclear proliferation, they said.
In April last year, Daniel Poneman, U.S. deputy secretary of energy, told Tatsujiro Suzuki, then vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, during Suzuki’s visit to the United States that he was deeply concerned that Japan would have more stocks of separated plutonium from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel while there is no plan for consumption.
The remark surprised Japanese officials because Poneman, known as a pro-nuclear expert, was believed to be sympathetic with Japan’s reprocessing program.
Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., the operator of the Rokkasho facility, plans to complete construction of the plant by October. The maximum reprocessing capacity will be 800 tons of spent nuclear fuel per year, recovering up to 8 tons of plutonium.
Japan already has a stockpile of 44 tons of plutonium, which can make up several thousand nuclear weapons.
During a recent interview, Jon Wolfsthal, who served as a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the U.S. National Security Council between 2009 and 2012, expressed disappointment over Japan’s failure to make changes to its reprocessing program even after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“I'm disappointed that Japan and everything they’ve gone through in the last three years hasn’t fundamentally re-evaluated their need for this material,” Wolfsthal said. “I think it would be better, personally, if Japan did not have a MOX (mixed oxide fuel) program and operate Rokkasho.”
Wolfsthal added that there was a general sense in the Obama administration that Japan would not listen to U.S. advice on the matter and that harping on it would only deteriorate bilateral relations.
At a symposium in Tokyo in December, Robert Einhorn, who had been special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control at the U.S. State Department, questioned the moves by Japan and France to proceed with nuclear fuel reprocessing.
“Why did all (other) advanced countries take the decision to abandon reprocessing?” Einhorn asked. “Is there something different about Japan and France, which led these countries in a different direction?”
In a speech in Tokyo in October, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz also said, “The United States continues to believe the separation of plutonium needs to be in balance with a corresponding pathway for the eventual consumption or disposition of that material.”
Meanwhile, the Abe Cabinet approved on April 11 the nation's new basic energy plan, which regards nuclear power as a key electricity source and will restart idled nuclear reactors if their safety is confirmed. The plan also pointed to pushing forward the reprocessing program and the completion of the Rokkasho plant as a pending policy goal.
But it also tries to address Washington’s concern by including a clause that says, “We do pay due consideration to the balance between supply and demand of plutonium.”
For Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel requires the consent of the U.S. government based on a Japan-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement, but Washington is concerned of the negative effects that Japan’s large plutonium stockpile can have on negotiations with South Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs.
During Suzuki’s U.S. visit in April, Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, also expressed “grave concern” over the Rokkasho plant from the standpoint of its ramifications on U.S.-South Korea nuclear cooperation and Iran’s nuclear program.
Washington was undergoing difficult negotiations with Seoul, which demanded the United States give consent to its program to extract plutonium and other nuclear materials from spent fuel. The U.S. concern was that if it had granted such approval, it would have encouraged Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Vietnam and other countries to demand their right to extract plutonium.
Complicating matters is the sentiment on the South Korean side that it is unfair that Japan has been given consent to extract plutonium but South Korea, which is also Washington’s close ally, has not been granted the same right.
Also, Iran and North Korea can claim it is a Washington double standard to allow Japan to produce plutonium, while demanding they give up their nuclear programs.
During a lecture in South Korea in October, Einhorn said he recognizes Seoul’s “desire for parity with Japan” on nuclear reprocessing.
In an apparent attempt to assuage South Koreans, Einhorn said, “Japanese experience with both reprocessing and enrichment--the spending of many billions of dollars over several decades for programs that have provided little if any commercial value--is not one South Korea should want to emulate.”
(Douglas Birch, senior reporter for The Center for Public Integrity, contributed to this article.)
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A symposium sponsored by The Asahi Shimbun and Princeton University in December discussed Japan's stockpile of plutonium and its implications on nuclear nonproliferation efforts.
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