"Reprocessing provides the strongest link between commercial nuclear power and proliferation."
– US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 'Nuclear proliferation and safeguards', June 1977.
U.S. Republican candidate Donald Trump recently said that he would support a decision by Japan to build nuclear weapons. "You may very well be better off if that's the case," Trump said. "In other words, where Japan is defending itself against North Korea, which is a real problem. You very well may have a better case right there."1
Trump's comments were criticized both in Japan and in the U.S. But the position of successive U.S. governments has also been highly problematic ‒ publicly criticizing Japan's stockpiling of ever-greater amounts of separated plutonium and voicing concern about Japan's plan to start up the Rokkasho reprocessing plant ... but doing absolutely nothing about those problems.
Japan continues to expand its stockpile of 48 tonnes of separated plutonium (10.8 tonnes in Japan, 20.7 tonnes in the UK and 16.3 tonnes in France) and it continues to advance plans to start up the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in 2018. Rokkasho would result in an additional eight tonnes of separated plutonium annually.
The U.S. has a long history of publicly and privately voicing concern about Japan's plutonium stockpiling, and an equally long history of inaction. Diplomatic cables in 1993 and 1994 from US Ambassadors in Tokyo described Japan's accumulation of plutonium as "massive" and questioned the rationale for the stockpiling of so much plutonium since it appeared to be economically unjustified.2
A March 1993 diplomatic cable from US Ambassador Armacost in Tokyo to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act, posed these questions: "Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan's being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?"2
At the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, U.S. President Obama said: "We simply can't go on accumulating huge amounts of the very material, like separated plutonium, that we're trying to keep away from terrorists."3
In 2014, a U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration report noted that "global civilian plutonium inventories have risen sharply over the last 20 years" and that "further international engagement is needed to stop plutonium accumulation and start drawing down inventories."4
The Communiqué of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, endorsed by 53 nations, stated: "We encourage States to minimise their stocks of HEU [highly enriched uranium] and to keep their stockpile of separated plutonium to the minimum level, both as consistent with national requirements."5
In 2014, with no hint of irony, a joint US/Japan statement announcing the plan to send some HEU and separated plutonium from the Fast Critical Assembly at Tokai to the U.S. concluded: "Our two countries encourage others to consider what they can do to further HEU and plutonium minimization."6 The amount of plutonium held at Tokai was 331 kg, yet Japan plans to separate 8,000 kg of plutonium every year at Rokkasho.
Ahead of the recently-concluded 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, the U.S. government was once again making strong statements about reprocessing and plutonium stockpiling. In mid-March, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman, who heads the State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that reprocessing "has little if any economic justification" and raises proliferation concerns.7
Countryman said "there are genuine economic questions where it is important that the US and its partners in Asia have a common understanding of the economic and nonproliferation issues at stake before making a decision about renewal of the 123 [civilian nuclear cooperation] agreement, for example, with Japan."8
Countryman focused his criticisms on moves by China, Japan and South Korea to develop reprocessing programs while also expressing blanket opposition to civil reprocessing programs: "I would be very happy to see all countries get out of the plutonium reprocessing business."9
Countryman said the U.S. has raised with France its concerns about the dynamics in Asia. France's Areva is heavily involved in the reprocessing plans in both China and Japan.7
Japan's bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. expires in 2018. The current agreement, which will remain in force beyond 2018 unless amended, does nothing to curb or prevent Japan's plutonium stockpiling or its reprocessing plans.10
Washington could apply constraints to Japan's plutonium stockpiling and reprocessing insofar as it involves U.S.-obligated nuclear materials. But that seems highly unlikely. An indication of the realpolitik came in late March when Thomas Countryman, presumably pressured by higher-ups, reversed his earlier statements. Countryman 2.0 claimed that Japan's reprocessing plans and plutonium stockpiling do not raise proliferation concerns and that no other country was closer or more important as a partner to the U.S. than Japan.11
Nuclear commentator Dan Yurman suggests the whole thing was a set-up: "On one hand, the first round of comments by Countryman appear to address China's concerns about Japan's [plutonium] stockpile. China's delegation to the Nuclear Security Summit was led by Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China. On the other, the state department official's reversal appears to also appease the Japanese delegation which undoubtedly did not take kindly to having such a direct set of remarks expressed ahead of their visit to Washington."12
Washington and Seoul came to an agreement last year which continues the prohibition on domestic reprocessing in South Korea while permitting research into pyroprocessing ‒ separating fission products from spent fuel, leaving plutonium mixed with other actinides.13
Pyroprocessing is promoted as a proliferation-resistant alternative to conventional reprocessing. But it can also be a stepping-stone to weapons-usable material. South Korea's Chosun Media quotes a nuclear engineering professor saying that "if spent fuel is first reprocessed using pyroprocessing and then dissolved using nitric acid ‒ which is the typical method ‒ then it is possible to obtain more fissile material in a shorter amount of time."14
In a country with reprocessing, a switch to pyroprocessing would be a stepping-stone to non-proliferation. In a country without reprocessing ‒ such as South Korea ‒ pyroprocessing is a stepping-stone to proliferation.
Washington has been more proactive in its negotiations with South Korea than it has been with Japan. But Washington's refusal to do anything about Japan's reprocessing plans and plutonium stockpiling creates a double-standard which is near-impossible to maintain. Christopher Hill, a former American ambassador to Seoul, said in 2013: "If the Koreans are left with the impression that Japan can do things that South Korea can't, then it's not a sustainable concept."15
Proliferation expert Henry Sokolski notes that those South Koreans who want a nuclear weapons option as a countermeasure against North Korea "complain that Washington has authorized Japan, America's other East Asian security ally, to reprocess spent US-origin fuel (fuel made in the United States but burned in reactors in Japan) to produce plutonium. This grates on Seoul, given the historical enmity between Japan and South Korea. Washington has yet to grant South Korea similar recycling rights."16
Shortly after North Korea's nuclear weapon test on January 6, leaders of the South Korean National Assembly's ruling party publicly urged President Park Geun-hye to consider reprocessing fuel from nuclear power plants to extract plutonium, as a hedge against North Korea's nuclear weapons program.16
Elsewhere, the U.S. established a 'gold standard' with a bilateral agreement with the United Arab Emirates which prohibits enrichment and reprocessing in the UAE. But the U.S. then abandoned the 'gold standard' and is now willing to conclude nuclear trade agreements with (at most) voluntary, unenforceable commitments to forego enrichment and reprocessing.17
Of course, the U.S. is not the only country at fault. France could put international security and non-proliferation objectives ahead of commercial nuclear imperatives ... but that would be a first. Australia has its own unique way of pretending to be concerned about the security and proliferation risks associated with reprocessing and plutonium stockpiling, while ensuring that commercial imperatives and Big Power politics come first. Australia insists on prior consent before Australian-obligated nuclear material is reprocessed. So far, so good ‒ but Australia has never once invoked its right of veto to prohibit reprocessing, even when it leads to plutonium stockpiling.
China's reprocessing plans
At an October 2015 session of the First Committee session of the U.N. General Assembly, China criticized Japan's reprocessing plans, noting that Japan has enough plutonium to produce a large number of nuclear weapons, and that some Japanese advocate weapons production.10
But China doesn't bring a great deal of moral authority to the debate. An editorial in the Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said: "China criticizes Japan for possessing enough plutonium 'to produce a large number of nuclear weapons.' Is China, which keeps the actual situation concerning its nuclear weapons secret and is reportedly enhancing its nuclear capability, in a position to criticize Japan?"9
Moreover China is planning to massively increase domestic reprocessing. China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) and Areva envisage a commercial-scale plant processing 800 tonnes of spent fuel annually, with capital costs of CNY 100 billion (US$15.4 billion, €13.8 billion).18
In mid-March, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker accused the Obama administration of encouraging reprocessing despite the concern over proliferation, pointing to the renegotiation of a nuclear cooperation agreement with China last year that allows the reprocessing of fuel from U.S.-designed reactors. "We're not calling for a plutonium time-out like we could have done," Corker said.7 Democratic Senator Ed Markey warned of a domino effect in East Asia, saying if Japan and China went ahead with their reprocessing plants, there would be pressure on South Korea to pursue its own reprocessing efforts, which wold in turn undermine efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.7
In Beijing, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz voiced concern about China's plans for its first commercial-scale reprocessing plant. He told the Wall Street Journal that China's recent announcement that it would press ahead with a reprocessing program "certainly isn't a positive in terms of non-proliferation" and that "we don't support large-scale reprocessing". Moniz continued: "I don't think in any way we've been coy about our arguments with all of our partners. We just see so many problems. It's just, on objective grounds, very difficult to understand."19
Areva didn't respond to a request from the Wall Street Journal for comment on Moniz's remarks and CNNC said its press officers weren't available.19
Mark Hibbs from Carnegie's Nuclear Policy Program said China's decision to pursue reprocessing couldn't be justified on economic grounds but China may be acting strategically, guaranteeing future fuel supply by recycling.19 In addition to reprocessing, Beijing plans to expand its limited MOX production capability (most likely with the involvement of Areva) to produce MOX fuel for light water reactors and possibly also fast reactors.18
Moreover there are reports that Beijing may attempt to emulate Russia's build-own-operate nuclear export model and that such an endeavor might be more practical or palatable if spent fuel from overseas reactors is taken back for reprocessing rather than direct disposal.20
Sokolski suggests a more sinister motivation:16
"If China builds and operates this plant, it plans to stockpile plutonium for 10 to 20 years ‒ ostensibly for advanced reactor fuel ‒ producing enough plutonium for between 15,000 and 30,000 bombs, roughly the number of weapons' worth of nuclear explosives that the United States or Russia could remilitarize if they weaponized the massive amounts of surplus nuclear weapons fuel in their respective stockpiles.
"This could be militarily significant. Currently, China's nuclear arsenal is believed to be only 200 to 400 weapons. Its surplus plutonium stockpile, moreover, is only large enough to produce some additional hundreds of bombs, and China lacks any working military plutonium production reactor. Would a Chinese commercial plutonium program serve as a work-around? This may not be China's intention now, but if tensions in the region increased, might this change? One has to hope not.
"What makes these civilian plutonium-recycling efforts all the more dubious is how little economic and technical sense they make. They are not only unnecessary to promote nuclear power or manage nuclear waste, but also clear money losers. Privately, Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean officials and other government advisers concede these points; publicly, they don't."
1. 26 March 2016, 'Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds on His Foreign Policy Views', www.nytimes.com/2016/03/27/us/politics/donald-trump-transcript.html?_r=0
3. 26 March 2012, 'Remarks by President Obama at Hankuk University', www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/03/26/remarks-president-obama-h...
4. National Nuclear Security Administration, Global Threat Reduction Initiative, 3 Dec 2014, "Removal Program Overview", http://dels.nas.edu/resources/static-assets/nrsb/miscellaneous/Dickerson...
7. Matthew Pennington / Associated Press, 17 March 2016, 'US official comes out strongly against major powers in East Asia pursuing nuclear reprocessing', www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2016-03-17/us-official-criticizes-...
8. 17 March 2016, 'Reviewing the Administration's Nuclear Agenda ‒ Podcast', www.foreign.senate.gov/listen/reviewing-the-administrations-nuclear-agen...
9. 23 March 2016, 'Government needs to thoroughly explain nuclear fuel cycle project to U.S.', www.chicagotribune.com/sns-wp-yomiuri-editorial-nuclear-db5a4668-f101-11...
10. 11 Feb 2016, 'US, others worried over Japan's plutonium stockpile', www.chicagotribune.com/sns-wp-japan-nuclear-62335e88-d0e9-11e5-abc9-ea15...
11. Seima Oki, 29 March 2016, 'U.S. official changes stance on Japan's nuclear policy', http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0002840098
12. Dan Yurman, 2 April 2016, 'Nuclear Fuel News for 4/2/16', http://neutronbytes.com/2016/04/01/nuclear-fuel-news-for-4216/
13. 22 April 2015, 'S. Korea, US strike new civil nuclear deal', http://phys.org/news/2015-04-south-korea-nuclear.html
14. Lee Young-Wan, 19 Feb 2016, http://m.chosun.com/svc/article.html?sname=news&contid=2016021900376
English translation posted at: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/IMPORTANT-FOLLOWUP---Ending-South-Kor...
15. Jay Solomon and Miho Inada, 1 May 2013, 'Japan's Nuclear Plan Unsettles U.S.', www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324582004578456943867189804
16. Henry Sokolski, 28 March 2016, 'Can East Asia avoid a nuclear explosive materials arms race?', http://thebulletin.org/can-east-asia-avoid-nuclear-explosive-materials-a...
17. 23 Aug 2013, 'Sensitive nuclear technologies and US nuclear export agreements', Nuclear Monitor #766, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/766/sensitive-nuclear-technolo...
18. WNA, Feb 2016, 'China's Nuclear Fuel Cycle', www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-a-f...
19. Brian Spegele, 17 March 2016, 'China's Plans to Recycle Nuclear Fuel Raise Concerns', www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-plans-to-recycle-nuclear-fuel-raise-concerns...
20. 27 Sept 2015, 'China to start reprocessing plant by 2030', http://neutronbytes.com/2015/09/27/russia-has-ambitious-plans-for-mox-fu...