Japan is planning to start a $21 billion nuclear reprocessing plant, stoking concern in China that the facility’s output could be diverted for use in an atomic bomb.
The issue will be one of the flashpoints at the Nuclear Security Summit starting today in The Hague, Netherlands, that Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping are due to attend. It’s adding to bitterness marked by territorial disputes and left over issues from World War II between Asia’s two largest economies.
“Japan has stockpiled large volumes of sensitive nuclear materials, including not only plutonium but also uranium, and that’s far exceeding its normal needs,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters on March 11.
The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in northern Japan will begin separating plutonium from spent nuclear fuel in the third quarter, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. spokesman Yoshi Sasaki said March 7. The plant has missed previous start up dates because of equipment failures.
“The Chinese have said they saw Japan plutonium as a weapons option and I think that many people in Japan do too,” said Frank von Hippel, a former White House national security adviser now at Princeton University, who has consulted with Chinese and Japanese nuclear officials. This reflects the tension between the two countries, he said.
Japan was prepared to discuss its reprocessing program at The Hague summit, a Foreign Ministry official who asked not to be identified citing agency policy said at a March 20 press briefing. The country planned to reiterate its policy of not producing more plutonium than it can use, the official said.
Rokkasho is designed to separate as much as 8 tons of plutonium per year for reactor fuel. If diverted, that’s enough material to make hundreds of nuclear bombs like the one dropped over Nagasaki in 1945.
While the International Atomic Energy Agency monitors Rokkasho, the facility’s throughput is so large, inspectors cannot guarantee that ‘‘significant quantities’’ of material don’t go unaccounted for. About eight kilograms (18 pounds) of plutonium are needed for a single bomb.
“Nuclear facilities are very complicated things,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said March 3. “It happens from time to time there exists material unaccounted for.”
Keeping nuclear material from slipping outside official control, where it may be sold for weapons or passed on to terrorists, is the focus of The Hague meeting.
The IAEA’s Amano, a career Japanese diplomat who has headed the Vienna-based agency since 2009, added that inspectors “have drawn the conclusion that all nuclear material in Japan stays in peaceful purposes” and that there’s no “reason to be concerned that this will be diverted for military purposes.”
China, in discussion with Areva SA to build a plant similar to Rokkasho since 2008, has raised public concern over Japanese atomic fuel stockpiles, set to grow even as the majority of the country’s reactors sit idle following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Japan agreed to return “hundreds of kilograms” of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium to the U.S., according to a White House statement today. Abe is due to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama at the security summit.
Japan, South Korea
China’s own nuclear weapons program, which began in 1955, is thought to have left the country with as many as 75 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to U.S. Department of Defense estimates cited by the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative.
The U.S. has sought to dissuade Japan and South Korea from abandoning their nuclear-weapon bans by protecting the countries under its nuclear umbrella.
“We are working with Japan and the Republic of Korea in order to make sure they don’t feel so threatened that they move towards nuclearization in self-help,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a March 13 Senate subcommittee hearing.
The country’s decision to reprocess nuclear fuel to extract plutonium may have other knock-on effects.
South Korea is also looking at doing the same and may be encouraged to proceed, while international negotiators are trying to prevent the build-up of nuclear weapons material in Iran, according to Steve Fetter, the former assistant director in the White House’s science and technology policy office.
Japan’s ties with China are at their frostiest since diplomatic relations were established in 1972.
Coastguard ships from both countries have been tailing one another through waters around disputed East China Sea islands. The tension rose a notch when China declared an air defense identification zone over much of the East China Sea covering the islands.
Matters got worse in December when Abe visited Tokyo’s Yasakuni shrine seen by China and South Korea as a symbol of past military aggression.
“While Japan has no stated plan to use its nuclear fuel for a weapons program, it’s ability to do so is causing mistrust among its neighbors,” Fetter said. “When you combine those things with disputes over island territories, I think it’s easy for people in China to connect that this is another indication that Japan has other motives.”
Former Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, now a professor at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs in Tokyo says Japan’s membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, its protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and public antipathy to nuclear arms mean making a bomb is out of the question.
“What would be the point of Japan breaking the treaty and being subject to sanctions by the international community, just like North Korea?” she said in an interview. “There would be no point.”
More than 9 tons of separated plutonium are stockpiled in Japan, according to IAEA declarations. Another 35 tons are stored outside the country. Facilities in France and the U.K., two of the five officially recognized nuclear-weapons states, currently reprocess Japanese spent fuel.
“Implementation and functioning of safeguards is for the most part a matter of trust in the impartiality of the IAEA and the competence and diligence of its inspectors,” said David Cliff, a researcher at the London-based Verification Research, Training and Information Center.
The IAEA, which spends more safeguarding Japan’s nuclear material than in any other country, worked for more than a decade on a system ensuring Rokkasho’s material wouldn’t be diverted.
“IAEA had never before been challenged with designing a credible safeguards approach for a large commercial scale reprocessing facility,” said a 2009 Department of Energy report, co-authored by Shirley Johnson, the former IAEA official who helped design monitoring at Rokkasho. “It was always recognized that the available verification measurements would have inadequate sensitivity and reliability to statistically detect the diversion of a significant quantity.”