Japan Sending Nuclear-Weapons Material to U.S. in Nod to Chinese

Japan agreed to give some of its uranium and plutonium stockpiles back to the U.S. in a nod to Chinese concerns that the material could be used for nuclear weapons.

Today’s deal will repatriate “hundreds of kilograms” of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium from Japan to the U.S., according to a White House statement. President Barack Obama and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are making the announcement today at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, Netherlands.

“It’s very clearly the first give of this summit,” Ken Brill, the former U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in an interview. The agreement transfers more than 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of plutonium and over 200 kilograms of uranium, according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

Japan, a non-nuclear weapons country, has been criticized by China for stockpiling material that could be used in bombs. Tension between Asia’s two biggest economies has risen over disputed South China Sea islands and issues left over from World War II. With more than 9 tons of plutonium stockpiled in Japan, the agreement is a largely symbolic gesture.

“What Japan needs to do immediately is to make sure that stockpile doesn’t grow unless there is a demand,” Miles Pomper, a researcher at the Washington-based Center for Nonproliferation, said in an interview. “The Chinese are right.”

Japan will start a nuclear plant in Rokkasho later this year that can separate as many as 8 tons of plutonium a year. Originally intended to create nuclear fuel, it’s unclear what Japan will do with the material since most reactors remain idle following the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdowns in 2011.

Exceeds Needs

“The reason why this has gotten China and the world worried is that the stockpile far exceeds Japan’s nuclear energy needs,” Chen Kai, Secretary General of China’s Arms Control and Nuclear Disarmament Association, said today at a briefing in The Hague. “One should always look at the needs of the materials.”

The materials that will be transported to the U.S. come from Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency and were used for reactor experiments, according to the statement.

The deal goes toward “furthering our mutual goal of minimizing stocks of highly-enriched uranium and separated plutonium worldwide, which will help prevent unauthorized actors, criminals, or terrorists from acquiring such materials, the White House said, adding that the material will be ‘‘converted into less sensitive forms.’’

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