The U.S. government has expressed “grave concern” to Japanese officials over Tokyo’s spent nuclear fuel reprocessing program as it increases Japan’s stockpile of plutonium and the risk of proliferation, according to a joint investigation by The Asahi Shimbun and the Center for Public Integrity, a U.S. nonprofit journalism organization.
With the nation’s 48 nuclear reactors offline, the planned start-up of a plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, which will extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel, will only increase Japan’s already-growing stockpile of plutonium, U.S. nuclear policy experts said.
If the plant starts operations as early as this year, it would pose serious concerns about the Obama administration’s efforts to control nuclear proliferation, they said.
Japan already has a stockpile of 44 tons of plutonium, which can make up several thousand nuclear weapons.
During a recent interview, Jon Wolfsthal, who served as a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the U.S. National Security Council between 2009 and 2012, expressed disappointment over Japan’s failure to make changes to its reprocessing program even after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“I’m disappointed that Japan and everything they’ve gone through in the last three years hasn’t fundamentally re-evaluated their need for this material,” Wolfsthal said. “I think it would be better, personally, if Japan did not have a MOX (mixed oxide fuel) program and operate Rokkasho.”
At a symposium in Tokyo in December, Robert Einhorn, who had been special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control at the U.S. State Department, questioned the moves by Japan and France to proceed with nuclear fuel reprocessing.
“Why did all (other) advanced countries take the decision to abandon reprocessing?” Einhorn asked. “Is there something different about Japan and France, which led these countries in a different direction?”
For Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel requires the consent of the U.S. government based on a Japan-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement, but Washington is concerned of the negative effects that Japan’s large plutonium stockpile can have on negotiations with South Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs.