TOKYO (TIP): Just weeks after Japan agreed to give up a cache of weapons-grade plutonium, the country is set to push ahead with a program that would produce new stockpiles of the material, creating a proliferation risk for decades to come. Though that additional plutonium would not be the grade that is most desirable for bombs, and is therefore less of a threat, it could — in knowledgeable hands and with some work and time — be used to make a weapon.
The newly created stockpiles would add to tons of other plutonium already being stored in Japan. “The government made a big deal out of returning several hundred kilograms of plutonium, but it brushes over the fact that Japan has so much more,” said Sumio Mabuchi, an opposition lawmaker who served as adviser to the government in the early days of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. “It’s hypocritical.” Plutonium staying in Japan would be used for a nuclear recycling program that has become one of the most contentious parts of the nation’s first comprehensive energy plan since the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The plan is expected to be approved by the cabinet as early as Friday.The recycling program, which seeks to separate plutonium from used nuclear fuel so it can be reused to power reactors, is seen by supporters as a way of ensuring resource-poor Japan more energy independence. The program has helped delay the energy plan’s approval, with even some members of the governing party worried by its cost and by criticism from proliferation experts at home and abroad. Those experts fear the plutonium produced by recycling would create an inviting target for terrorists to steal or attack, and American officials have been quietly pressing Japan not to build up larger stocks of the material.
The plutonium is far easier to use in weapons than the uranium that has been used to power most of Japan’s nuclear reactors. For the many Japanese frightened of atomic power after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the government’s continued push for recycling after years of missteps is a worrisome sign that the government plans a robust nuclear energy program in the future despite promises to eventually reduce the nation’s use of atomic power. (The country’s functioning nuclear reactors have been idled while they undergo more stringent safety checks introduced after the accident.) The plans also mean Japan is committed to using a mixed plutoniumuranium fuel for reactors that is considered somewhat more dangerous than uranium fuel if there is an accident.
The mixture, called mixed oxide fuel, is necessary because plutonium produced by recycling cannot be used alone in the reactors. Japan’s intent to grow its plutonium inventory is also becoming a new irritant in Tokyo’s relations with its Asian neighbors, threatening to further destabilize a region already mired in disputes over territory and wartime history. This month, China accused Japan of stockpiling plutonium and uranium “far exceeding its normal needs.”
The implication is that Japan wants to retain the plutonium in case it decided to pursue its own nuclear weapons program. For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other proponents of recycling, the risks are outweighed by the benefit of more energy independence — a goal of Japanese leaders for decades. While uranium remains widely available, and cheap, the Abe administration says Japan’s nuclear program should not be vulnerable to disruptions of supply or a possible rise in costs. “Japan must continue with the nuclear fuel cycle,” said Kazuo Ishikawa, a former Trade Ministry official who worked on energy policy.
“Japan’s energy security depends on it.” Anxiety over Japan’s planned recycling program stretches back decades. As some countries, including Britain and Russia, have opted to reprocess plutonium for nuclear fuel, the United States under Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter turned away from the idea in good part because it was considered a possible new path to a bomb. The fear was that other countries would be more inclined to start the programs if the United States did so, creating stocks of plutonium around the world.