This year has seen a lot of concern about the confrontation between China and Japan over a group of islets in the East China Sea.
Less attention, though, is being paid to what may be a more destabilizing development: next year Japan plans to bring its long-delayed Rokkasho reprocessing plant online, which could extract as much as eight tons of weapons-usable plutonium from spent reactor fuel a year, enough for nearly 1,000 warheads. That would add to Japan’s existing stockpile of 44 tons, 9 of which are stored in domestic facilities.
Japan has repeatedly vowed never to develop nuclear weapons, and there’s no reason to doubt that now. But there’s more to worry about: reprocessing not only creates a tempting target for terrorists, it also sets a precedent for countries around the world to follow suit — and pushes the world toward rampant nuclear proliferation.
Originally, Japan, like other countries, considered the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel necessary to obtain start-up plutonium for a new generation of plutonium “breeder” reactors that would use uranium more efficiently. But uranium remains cheap and abundant, and the planned reactors, so-called molten-sodium-cooled breeders, proved to be costly and unreliable. Japan’s own Monju prototype breeder reactor operated for only four months in 1995 before a sodium fire shut it down. Its operators are still struggling to restart it.
Japan then shifted to a strategy of recycling separated plutonium back into the fuel of its existing reactors. That effort was delayed by technical problems and public opposition and, in the wake of last year’s Fukushima accident, appears completely unviable. Still, Japan continues to plan to reprocess its nuclear fuel.
And it does so despite international pressure. At a nuclear-security event in Seoul, South Korea, last March, President Obama said, “We simply can’t go on accumulating huge amounts of the very material, like separated plutonium, that we are trying to keep away from terrorists.”
Not only did Japanese authorities ignore him, but some reprocessing advocates claim that the Obama administration in fact supports Japan’s plutonium recycling program.
Japan insists that its stockpiles are safe, but just one successful theft by would-be nuclear terrorists would create a global crisis. Of even more concern is how reprocessing provides cover for other countries to acquire a nuclear option.
We learned this in 1974 when India took plutonium enriched with help from the American Atoms for Peace program and used it for a “peaceful nuclear explosion.”
Thanks to sustained diplomatic efforts, starting with Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, and to the high cost of reprocessing, Japan is the only non-nuclear state that continues to reprocess its nuclear fuel. South Korea is insisting, however, in its negotiation of a new Agreement of Nuclear Cooperation with the United States, that it should have the same right to reprocess as Japan.
South Korea isn’t alone. South Africa’s energy minister recently reasserted her country’s interest in reprocessing. When asked why the country would want to embark on such a costly venture, a South African nuclear official once responded, “Reprocessing is the currency of power in the modern world!” Meanwhile, Iran insists that it has the same rights as Japan and is building a reactor similar to the one India used to produce the plutonium for its first nuclear bombs.
Despite the added cost of reprocessing — about $2.5 billion a year for the new facility — Japan insists it is the only viable option for the spent nuclear fuel which is filling up the cooling pools at its reactors. But there are easier alternatives.
When nuclear power plants in most other countries need space in their pools, they remove some of the older, cooler fuel and place it in air-cooled casks within the plant’s security perimeter. That costs 5 percent as much as reprocessing does. Eventually, the spent fuel is to be shipped to an underground repository, as is to be done with the high-level radioactive waste from reprocessing.
Reprocessing advocates in Japan and South Korea say that communities around the nuclear power plants will not allow dry-cask storage and that, when the spent fuel pools fill up, the power plants will have to shut down.
But in both countries those local governments receive large subsidies and taxes — typically 50 percent of a municipality’s revenue in Japan — for playing host to nuclear power plants. They are unlikely to force permanent shutdowns just because they don’t like extra spent fuel kept at the reactor site, especially if the safety advantages of dry-cask storage are explained to them.
The Obama administration should make it emphatically clear to Japan’s government that the separation of more plutonium is in no one’s interest. The two countries should instead jointly lead a global effort to reduce existing stocks of separated plutonium by discouraging reprocessing and encouraging safe disposal of already separated stocks, which could be done, for example, by immobilizing the plutonium and placing it in three-mile-deep boreholes.
The waste of trillions of taxpayers’ yen is Japan’s problem. The risk it presents, however, is the whole world’s concern.
Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton. Masafumi Takubo is a nuclear policy analyst based in Japan.