The Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing plant located in Japan’s northern Aomori Prefecture is capable of putting out nine tons of weapons-grade plutonium in a year, and this is exactly why the United States is opposing Japan’s plan to reprocess its nuclear fuel. The annual output of the facility, once at full capacity, is enough to build as many as 2,000 nuclear weapons, a fact not lost on Washington, as Tokyo insists that the program is non-military in nature.
The Japanese government has repeatedly stated that the plutonium output of the nuclear reprocessing facility will be allocated strictly for power generation. But this strikes the U.S. as a vague argument, as only two of Japan’s 50 power reactors are running – the rest have been mothballed due to safety concerns arising from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Japan has been indignant about its commitment to oppose the use of nuclear weapons, as it has been the only country to suffer a nuclear attack. But Washington is keen to keep the political stability of the region in check, as tensions have escalated due to North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing which has been opposed by the international community. The U.S. is of the opinion that as Japan has no obvious use for the nuclear fuel, it should not proceed with putting the Rokkasho facility online, as stockpiling tons of weapons-usable plutonium will not set a good example for the international community, it says. U.S. officials believe that Japan’s regional neighbors, particularly China, South Korea and Taiwan, are looking at the progress of the Rokkasho plant to gauge their own actions whether to pursue a nuclear fuel program as to balance nuclear capabilities in the area or, in Beijing’s case, make more plutonium to keep abreast of Japan’s stockpile. “As a practical matter, if (Japan) operates Rokkasho, it will force China to respond to re-establish that it, Beijing, not Tokyo, is the most dominant nuclear player in East Asia,” said Henry Sokolski, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. “Such nuclear tit-for-tats-manship could get ugly.”
Another major U.S. concern has to do with the security of Japan’s plutonium stockpile. Tokyo has, as of now, an estimated nine tons of weapons-usable plutonium on its soil. The Obama administration has made it clear to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission in a meeting in April that the stockpile would have long-reaching effects with the nuclear development environment all over the world. “Allowing Japan to acquire large amounts of plutonium without clear prospects for a plutonium-use plan is a bad example for the rest of the world,” U.S. officials have been quoted as saying. Also, the U.S. has been holding off on helping South Korea to start a nuclear fuel reprocessing program, as it is worried about the stability in the region. If Japan is “allowed” to reprocess nuclear fuel, Seoul might take issue with the fact that Japan is able to do exactly that which the U.S. has been discouraging them to do.
But Japan is rigid in its statements that there should be no worries about the nuclear output of Rokkasho, as it is meant for purely civilian purposes. Yasufumi Fukushi, spokesman for Rokkasho’s operator Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., said that soon Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will look to restart idled nuclear-power plants that meet new safety standards. He said that Rokkasho is part of a national energy policy that even seeks to reduce plutonium stockpiles by processing them into fuel for the power plants. Fukushi even stressed that the United Nations’s nuclear monitoring arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency, will be closely looking at the Rokkasho operation to guard against any diversion of the weapons-usable plutonium. “Japan accepts regular and irregular inspections from the IAEA and makes public how it handles and uses plutonium, which proves that Japan makes a peaceful use of it,” Fukushi said.
[via Fox Business]