What is to Happen with Japan’s Plutonium Stock?

14.08.2018 Author: Vladimir Terehov

New Eastern Outlook has featured regular discussions on the topic that we can provisionally dub as “Japan’s issues with nuclear power”. There is a fairly reasonable explanation for this interest, as this country’s economy is practically the third largest in the world, and this nation’s role, in recent years, has rapidly grown in prominence in various aspects of world politics and other areas.

The reason for returning to the previously mentioned topic stems from two recent events, with the first being the extension of the Agreement for Cooperation Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Japan Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, on 17 July, and a new plan of action in this sphere, adopted by the Japanese administration two weeks later.

World media have been paying close attention to both of these events. If we are to elaborate, journalists’ imagination could not have remained unaffected by the meme showing that Japan has thus far accumulated enough plutonium to produce 6,000 nuclear warheads, similar to the ones used to bomb Nagasaki in 1945.

But such alarmist “information” requires important clarifications that will inevitably guide us towards important and varied aspects of the issues mentioned above.

First of all plutonium does not actually exist in nature. More precisely, the periodic table contains the symbol Pu that represents an element, rarely found in nature, and there are various modifications of its synthetic version.

It is weapons-grade plutonium that the media scares its readers with, and Japan cannot be in possession of such plutonium. And this is not because a ban is in place. Forty six years ago, Japan voluntarily adopted the three non-nuclear principles with respect to nuclear weapons (with the option of changing its mind).

If Japan were indeed in possession of weapons-grade plutonium, then vigilant inspectors of The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who have access to all the nuclear sites in Japan, would have informed the relevant authorities to ensure relevant measures were taken.

Washington is one such authority, as from the moment Japan joined the efforts to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes (i.e. from the mid 1950s), the US has helped and guided it. These efforts are in accordance with the previously mentioned agreements for cooperation, with the most recent document dating back to 1988 and a term of 30 years.

All of these agreements have enabled Japan to widen its scope of competencies, which are important for its energy generating sector. Since Japan lacks natural resources, developing fairly inexpensive nuclear generation capacities was almost a lifeline for this country.

By the end of the last decade, its share of nuclear power plants in the national energy generating sector reached 30%, and, subsequently, a strategy was adopted to ensure this share would increase up to 50 % over the next 2 to 3 decades. By and large, this solution met Japan’s need to ensure its energy generating industry’s autonomy, which, at present, (after a sudden reduction in use of nuclear energy) is assessed at 10%. The latter, for the most part, determines the nature of Japan’s foreign policy and extent of its military involvement, as the nation is set on establishing a key route to ensure an uninterrupted supply of coal, which will pass through the Indian ocean and the South China Sea.

As far as the US role is concerned, limiting Japan’s involvement in the nuclear industry via agreements for cooperation ensured, as stated previously, the US control over this sector as well as business deals for American companies, which supplied Japan with nuclear reactors, nuclear fuel for them, etc.

Initially, nuclear reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, whose by-product is plutonium, took place in the USA (and later Great Britain and France). But the 1988 agreement allowed Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel autonomously, and use the plutonium product.

It is worth noting that reprocessing was meant to yield mainly reactor-grade plutonium, and most experts remain skeptical about the use of such plutonium for military purposes.

At present Japan already owns 47 tons of such material, with 10 tons stored in its territory, and the rest in France and Great Britain. Hence, Japan possesses substantial amounts of plutonium even in comparison to other nuclear nations.

This issue has been a cause for concern in Japan as well as the USA for a number of years. Firstly because its plutonium stock attracts wary attention from the whole Northeast Asian region. Besides, Japan’s stock may encourage countries of other regions (with Turkey and Egypt being worthy of mention) to establish nuclear reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel facilities yielding potentially weapons-grade plutonium. The negative consequences of this for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons are, therefore, obvious.

In the meantime, at the end of the last decade, nuclear reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel yielding plutonium for its subsequent use in the closed nuclear fuel cycle was one of the key aspects of Japan’s previously mentioned long-term energy strategy.

However, on 11 March 2011, there was a nuclear disaster in Fukushima, and Japan’s nuclear energy industry practically came to a standstill. Only 1 ton of plutonium can be used yearly in the three operational reactors meant for such purposes at present.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe supports implementing approximately 50% of Japan’s energy strategy from the last decade. But for the Japanese society still feeling the aftereffects of the Fukushima disaster even a reduced in scope strategy is not appealing.

There is no clear strategy on ridding the country of its plutonium stock, especially since Japan has accumulated vast quantities of it. And this issue was the key topic on the agenda of the negotiations (held primarily in private) between the US and Japan that took place before the 1988 agreement expired.

Washington agreed to extend it, but without a term limit, which means that the US can withdraw from it at any point in time by informing its cosigner 6 months in advance. This is disadvantageous for Japan, first and foremost for political reasons, as Japan would find itself on the opposite side of the negotiating table from the world community, which would be even more concerned about a lack of authority that would guarantee the peaceful nature of Japan’s nuclear program.

It is reasonable to assume that Washington’s pressure on Tokyo during the negotiations on extending the bilateral agreement signed in 1988 stemmed from the rationales of the new US strategy with respect to DPRK, aimed at ensuring complete disarmament of North Korea.

Still, Japan cannot afford to delay dealing with its issue of accumulated plutonium, and according to reports it is adopting a strategy of burying its reserves. Hence, the “Japanese” plutonium will be handed over to the US, while its reserves in France and Great Britain to those nations respectively. All three countries will most likely have to pay for solving this issue.

For now, one key question remains to do with the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, being built in a settlement of Rokkasho (in the north of Honshu), that is designed to produce 7 tons of plutonium per year. The previously mentioned factory, which will be completed by 2021-2022, complemented the original (“expanded in scope”) energy strategy.

But, as mentioned earlier, implementing even a part of this strategy does not sit well with the Japanese society. Suggestions to artificially reduce the output of the plant, which enormous resources have been invested in, is financially unsound.

Finally, it is worth noting that Japan’s issue with accumulated plutonium does not stem from its initial lack of planning, or, even less likely, from malicious intent. During the 60-year period of working towards the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the decisions made matched Japan’s state of development and were in line with important aspects of the country’s vital functions.

But this is the way our increasingly crazy world functions, where trouble seemingly brews all by itself.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.