TOKYO—Japan is preparing to start up a massive nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant over the objections of the Obama administration, which fears the move may stoke a broader race for nuclear technologies and even weapons in North Asia and the Middle East.
The Rokkasho reprocessing facility, based in Japan’s northern Aomori prefecture, is capable of producing nine tons of weapons-usable plutonium annually, said Japanese officials and nuclear-industry experts, enough to build as many as 2,000 bombs, although Japanese officials say their program is civilian.
Japanese officials have said the plutonium would strictly be used for power generation, even as just two of Japan’s 50 power reactors are running because of the safety concerns raised by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. As the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, Japanese officials have long opposed the use of nuclear weapons.
Yasufumi Fukushi, a spokesman for Rokkasho’s operator, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., said that under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, idled nuclear-power plants that meet new safety measures will reopen. He also said the government is pushing ahead with Rokkasho as part of a national energy policy that seeks to recycle used nuclear fuel. But with North Korea actively testing nuclear weaponry and the region brimming with territorial tensions, U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials have expressed concerns that the plant would have a far-reaching affect on other nuclear programs.
Japan nuclear efforts
- 1967 Japan Atomic Energy Commission decides ‘breeder’ reactors fueled by plutonium should be used in power generation.
- 1981 First extraction of plutonium occurs at Tokai Mura pilot reprocessing plant.
- 1988 U.S. grants Japan rights to reprocess plutonium from U.S.-origin spent fuel.
- 1992 Construction of large, commercial-scale reprocessing plant at Rokkasho begins.
- 1997 Explosion at Tokai Mura facility causes nuclear accident.
- 2011 Massive earthquake and tsunami cause leak of nuclear fuel from Fukushima reactor complex.
U.S. officials believe Japan’s neighbors, particularly China, South Korea and Taiwan, are closely monitoring Rokkasho and its possible commissioning to gauge whether they also should seek to develop their own nuclear-fuel technologies, or in Beijing’s case, expand them.
“As a practical matter, if it 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, who heads the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank. “Such nuclear tit-for-tats-manship could get ugly.”
Underscoring the concerns are calls by hawkish South Korean and Japanese politicians to consider whether their governments should pursue nuclear weapons after North Korea began a series of atomic-weapons tests in 2006. North Korea’s latest bomb test took place in February.
A second U.S. concern has to do with the security of Japan’s plutonium stockpile. Given that the country has drastically reduced the number of operating reactors that could burn plutonium-based fuels to produce electricity, the excess plutonium would have to be stored. Rokkasho has been seen as a facility that will allow Tokyo to reduce radioactive wastes from its nuclear power plants by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.
Japan’s government and private companies have invested more than $21 billion in the Rokkasho facility since its construction began in 1992. The startup of the plant, however, has been delayed 19 times because of technical and financial problems, said Japanese officials.
The Obama administration widely believes Rokkasho had been mothballed as a result of these delays, said U.S. officials who have worked on nuclear policy. This belief was further cemented by the Fukushima accident and Tokyo’s subsequent announcement that it was drastically scaling back its nuclear-power program.
“For the Obama administration…there wasn’t any real need to focus on [Rokkasho],” said Gary Samore, who oversaw nuclear-proliferation issues in the White House during President Barack Obama’s first term.
The December election of Mr. Abe, however, has bred new life into Japan’s nuclear-power program and the prospects for the Rokkasho facility, said government and industry officials. Mr. Abe is pro-nuclear power, but his office said he wouldn’t comment on Rokkasho.
Tokyo’s ability to both enrich uranium and reprocess spent reactor fuel has allowed it to amass roughly nine tons of weapons-usable plutonium on its soil. Activating the Rokkasho plant would produce that much each year, said officials and industry experts. Japan had a reprocessing center in central Japan, called Tokai Mura, that harvested roughly seven tons of plutonium before the plant was shut in 2007.
Japan’s reactors are almost all fueled by enriched uranium, not plutonium-based fuel. Reactors can be fueled by either, depending on the technology in use. Nuclear weapons, too, can be produced using either uranium enriched to weapons-grade or plutonium. Iran, by comparison, is producing near-weapons-grade uranium, but it also has a heavy-water reactor being developed that could produce weapons-usable plutonium.
The Obama administration has conveyed its concerns about the security of surplus plutonium to Japan in recent weeks, said U.S. and Japanese officials.
Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, met in April in Washington with Obama administration officials, and paraphrased what he said was their message: “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.”
Mr. Suzuki met with the administration’s point man on nuclear-proliferation issues, including Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman, and with Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman, said U.S. and Japanese officials.
The State Department said the U.S. wasn’t advising Japan on whether to rely on nuclear energy in the future. But U.S. officials said they believe Tokyo needs to put in place effective regulatory bodies in the wake of the Fukushima accident to effectively operate facilities like Rokkasho.
Both the Japan Atomic Energy Commission and Japan Nuclear Fuel have cited October as the startup date for the facility. But the country’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was created in response to the Fukushima disaster, has said meeting this date is “impossible” as new safety regulations won’t be released until December. The construction of the Rokkasho facility is largely completed, and nuclear-industry experts believe it could reach full capacity in a number of months.
Japan Nuclear Fuel’s Mr. Fukushi stressed that the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, will closely monitor Rokkasho’s operation to guard against potential 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,” he said.
Japanese nuclear regulators are taking a more cautious approach toward the timing of Rokkasho’s commissioning.
The Obama administration fears that whenever Rokkasho starts operating, it will add a new dimension of friction in the region, prompting other countries to seek greater nuclear capabilities and more control over them.
A new nuclear-cooperation agreement with South Korea, which would allow for the continued sale of U.S.-origin fuel and equipment to the Asian ally, has ben delayed.
South Korean negotiators had been seeking a new nuclear-cooperation agreement with the U.S. that would allow it to begin enriching uranium and reprocessing spent reactor fuel, arguing these technologies are crucial for Seoul to expand and secure its civilian nuclear-power program.
But Washington resisted and the two agreed last week to extend the current agreement—without those prerogatives—for another two years, while negotiations continue.
South Korea believes—and has argued to the U.S.—that it should have the same capabilities as Japan, a longtime rival and former colonial occupier, current and former U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials said the commissioning of Rokkasho will only increase pressure from Seoul that it be formally allowed to follow Tokyo and begin producing its own nuclear fuel.
“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,” said Christopher Hill, a former American ambassador to Seoul.
China last week said it signed an agreement with French nuclear-power companyAreva SA AREVA.FR +0.76% to construct a new facility to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. The plant is expected to be built at the same scale as Rokkasho and capable of producing nine tons of plutonium annually.
Beijing said the plant will be used only for civilian purposes. But China is estimated to have between 200 to 900 deployed nuclear weapons in its arsenal. And nuclear experts believe any sign Japan is expanding its ability to produce weapons-usable fissile materials will likely be matched by Beijing.