Tag Archives: threshold nuclear weapon state

Japan’s weapon: the plutonium exception

A container of MOX fuel (plutonium and uranium) is unloaded at the Takahama nuclear power plant , 2013
Japan’s nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. — the pillar of Tokyo’s nuclear energy policy — renewed automatically on July 15, 2018  after the current pact, which took effect in 1988, expire  The agreement allows Japan to be the sole non-nuclear-weapons state to use plutonium for peaceful purposes and underlies the country’s policy of recycling spent nuclear fuel.

But the renewal comes at a time when Japan’s “plutonium exception” is increasingly under scrutiny…Japan’s neighbors have cried foul over Japan’s plutonium exception. China has said it creates a path for Japan to obtain nuclear weapons. South Korea, which also has a nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S., has pressed Washington hard to be granted similar freedom on fuel reprocessing.  Countries such as Saudi Arabia that are looking to develop their own nuclear programs have also protested….Resolving the inconsistent treatment afforded Japan’s plutonium stockpile would make it easier for the United States to convince Pyongyang to give up reprocessing capabilities as part of its denuclearization. On July 3, 2018, Japan’s cabinet approved a new basic energy plan that includes reducing plutonium holdings, aiming to assuage American concerns…

So far, the U.S. has not called on Japan to abandon its plutonium entirely, or to speed up its reduction. And there is little chance the U.S. will end the cooperation agreement, as “Japan’s nuclear technology is indispensable to the American nuclear industry,” according to a Japanese government source.

Excerpts from YUKIO TAJIMA, Japan’s ‘plutonium exception’ under fire as nuclear pact extended, NIkkei, July 14, 2018

Threshold Nuclear Weapon States

The Benefits of Being a Threshold Nuclear Power: Japan v. China

japan nucler fuel limited logo

China has urged Japan to return over 300 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium to the Unites States and to explain how it intends to resolve its surplus plutonium problem. At a regular press briefing in Beijing on 17 February 2014, and in response to a question on Japan’s plutonium stocks, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stated:

“China attaches great importance to nuclear proliferation risks and potential threats posed by nuclear materials to regional security. China has grave concerns over Japan’s possession of weapons-grade nuclear materials… Japan’s failure to hand back its stored weapons-grade nuclear materials to the relevant country has ignited concerns of the international community including China.”

As reported in January 2014, agreement has been reached between the United States and Japan for the return of plutonium used in the Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) in JAERI Tokai Research Establishment, Tokai-mura, Ibaraki Prefecture. The formal agreement is expected to be concluded at the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands in March 2014. In its latest declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and in its 2012 plutonium management report Japan stated that the FCA facility has the total of 331 kg of plutonium, of which 293 kg is fissile plutonium. The largest share of this plutonium was supplied by the United Kingdom in addition to that supplied by the United States.

Commenting further, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared:

“China believes that Japan, as a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, should strictly observe its international obligations of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security. The IAEA requires all parties to maintain a best possible balance of supply and demand of nuclear materials as contained in the Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium. Japan’s large stockpile of nuclear materials including weapons-grade materials on its territory is an issue concerning nuclear material security, proliferation risks and big supply-demand imbalance.”

In addition to the call for the return of the weapon’s grade plutonium, the Chinese statement also raises a question over Japanese fuel cycle policy and its inability to use its existing plutonium stocks. With all 48 nuclear power reactors shutdown there is currently no demand for its separated plutonium as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. However, Japanese policy continues to plan the commercial operation of the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant as early as October 2014, following a safety assessment by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA). In its latest declaration to the IAEA, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission reported that as of 31 December 2012, Japan held 44,241 kg of separated unirradiated plutonium, of which 9,295 kg was stored in Japan and 34,946 kg was stored abroad. Japan’s plutonium program, its challenges and alternatives was recently addressed at a Tokyo symposium and in detailed analysis by IPFM.

As yet, there has been no official response from the Japanese government to the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, which has been extensively reported through Chinese media outlets

By Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider, China calls on Japan to return weapons grade plutonium to the United States, International Panel on Fissile Materials, Feb 18, 2014

Plutonium Production after Fukushima; the link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons

Last year’s tsunami disaster in Japan clouded the nation’s nuclear future, idled its reactors and rendered its huge stockpile of plutonium useless for now. So, the industry’s plan to produce even more has raised a red flag.  Nuclear industry officials say they hope to start producing a half-ton of plutonium within months, in addition to the more than 35 tons Japan already has stored around the world. That’s even though all the reactors that might use it are either inoperable or offline while the country rethinks its nuclear policy after the tsunami-generated Fukushima crisis.

“It’s crazy,” said Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel, a leading authority on nonproliferation issues and a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology. “There is absolutely no reason to do that.”  Japan’s nuclear industry produces plutonium — which is strictly regulated globally because it also is used for nuclear weapons — by reprocessing spent, uranium-based fuel in a procedure aimed at decreasing radioactive waste that otherwise would require long-term storage.  The industry wants to reprocess more to build up reserves in anticipation of when it has a network of reactors that run on a next-generation fuel that includes plutonium and that can be reused in a self-contained cycle — but that much-delayed day is still far off.  Japanese officials argue that, once those plans are in place, the reactors will draw down the stockpile and use up most of it by 2030.  “There is no excess plutonium in this country,” said Koichi Imafuku, an official at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy. “It’s not just lying around without purpose.”

In the meantime, the country’s post-Fukushima review of nuclear policy is pitting a growing number of critics who want to turn away from plutonium altogether against an entrenched nuclear industry that wants to push forward with it.  Other countries, including the United States, have scaled back the separation of plutonium because it is a proliferation concern and is more expensive than other alternatives, including long-term storage of spent fuel.

Fuel reprocessing remains unreliable and it is questionable whether it is a viable way of reducing Japan’s massive amounts of spent fuel rods, said Takeo Kikkawa, a Hitotsubashi University professor specializing in energy issues.  “Japan should abandon the program altogether,” said Hideyuki Ban, co-director of a respected anti-nuclear Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center. “Then we can also contribute to the global effort for nuclear non-proliferation.”

Von Hippel stressed that only two other countries reprocess on a large scale: France and Britain, and Britain has decided to stop. Japan’s civilian-use plutonium stockpile is already the fifth-largest in the world, and it has enough plutonium to make about 5,000 simple nuclear warheads, although it does not manufacture them.  Because of inherent dangers of plutonium stockpiles, government regulations require industry representatives to announce by March 31 how much plutonium they intend to produce in the year ahead and explain how they will use it.

But, for the second year in a row, the industry has failed to do so. They blame the government for failing to come up with a long-term policy after Fukushima, but say they nevertheless want to make more plutonium if they can get a reprocessing plant going by October.  Kimitake Yoshida, a spokesman for the Federation of Electric Power Companies, said the plutonium would be converted into MOX — a mixture of plutonium and uranium — which can be loaded back into reactors and reused in a cycle. But technical glitches, cost overruns and local opposition have kept Japan from actually putting the moving parts of that plan into action.

In the meantime, Japan’s plutonium stockpile — most of which is stored in France and Britain — has swelled despite Tokyo’s promise to international regulators not to produce a plutonium surplus.  Its plutonium holdings have increased fivefold from about 7 tons in 1993 to 37 tons at the end of 2010. Japan initially said the stockpile would shrink rapidly in early 2000s as its fuel cycle kicked in, but that hasn’t happened.

Critics argue that since no additional spent fuel is being created, and there are questions about how the plutonium would be used, this is not a good time start producing more. They also say it makes no sense for Japan to minimize its plutonium glut by calling it a “stockpile” rather than a “surplus.”  “It’s a simple accounting trick,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s laughable. And it sends the wrong signal all around the world.”

Officials stress that, like other plutonium-holding nations, Japan files a yearly report detailing its stockpile with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it has repeatedly failed to live up to its own schedules for how the plutonium will be used.  From 2006 until three years ago, the nuclear industry said the plutonium-consuming MOX fuel would be used in 16-18 conventional reactors “in or after” 2010. In fact, only two reactors used MOX that year. By the time of the earthquake and tsunami last year, the number was still just three — including one at the Fukushima plant.  In response to the delays, the industry has simply revised its plans farther off into the future. It is now shooting for the end of fiscal 2015.

“There really is a credibility problem here,” said Princeton’s von Hippel, who also is a member of the independent International Panel on Fissile Materials. “They keep making up these schedules which are never realized. I think the ship is sinking beneath them.”

By ERIC TALMADGE and MARI YAMAGUCHI, Japan to make more plutonium despite big stockpile, Associated Press, June 2, 2012

See also http://www.jnfl.co.jp/english/