Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.06.07

Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing

The Wall Street Journal, with a dateline of May 1, 2013, in its article on the Rokkasho reprocessing facility, reported that "Japan is preparing to start up a massive nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant over the objections of the Obama administration."

The article does not actually explain the issues that U.S. officials are raising in opposition to the reprocessing plant start-up, but it reports that starting the Rokkasho reprocessing plant may ignite nuclear proliferation. The article states that "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. 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." "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." "China last week said it signed an agreement with French nuclear-power company Areva SA to construct a new facility to reprocess spent nuclear fuel." "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."

Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Japan is not a nuclear-weapons state. The United States, however, exceptionally allows Japan to reprocess nuclear fuel. It now appears that this exception is under doubt. The Wall Street Journal is a quality paper, though there is no assurance that its articles are 100 percent accurate. The article, however, does seem to reflect the thinking or position of the U.S. government.

In East Asia, it is South Korea and Taiwan that are seen as posing a danger of proliferation. Particular attention is to be paid to South Korea, as its nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States is due to expire in 2014, and it has been negotiating for a renewal of that agreement since 2010. It is seeking the same treatment as Japan, i.e., permission to allow it to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

For the United States, denying South Korea's request to reprocess had not been that difficult in the past. More recently, with globalization and the economic growth of South Korea, that country's profile in the international community has been significantly enhanced just as its economic interdependence with the United States has deepened. Therefore, it has become increasingly difficult for the U.S. to insist that even while Japan is allowed to engage in reprocessing, the same cannot be allowed for South Korea. That having been said, the U.S. will not permit South Korea to engage in reprocessing. That is the case due to the issue of North Korea and because, from a nuclear non-proliferation standpoint, the U.S. wants to avoid reprocessing by South Korea and Taiwan.

Japan must continue to pay attention to the relations that the United States has with other countries. Ultimately, the question is whether Japan's plutonium stockpile increases or decreases. It is understandable that this raises sensitivities for the U.S., which is something about which the Japanese authorities are fully aware. Japan's plutonium stockpile is going to decline in the future. Can anyone guarantee that even if the Rokkasho plant starts reprocessing and produces plutonium, Japan's plutonium stockpile will not, in fact, increase?

As spent fuel, in the form of plutonium from nuclear plants, is reprocessed and recycled as fuel, the amount of the radioactive waste will decrease and the waste will become easier to manage. Also, the operation of uranium nuclear plants produces plutonium, which is then reprocessed. Nuclear power is designed so that uranium and reprocessed plutonium are used in a multi-layered fashion. Only if the entire process runs smoothly, will the stockpile of plutonium not increase and it may even decrease.

Since the Fukushima nuclear plant accident, almost all of Japan's nuclear power plants have ceased operations. If, as currently envisioned, the Rokkasho plant starts reprocessing, then the stockpile of plutonium will increase. Although spent fuel is unquestionably dangerous, plutonium resulting from reprocessing that has no obvious immediate use also poses a danger.

Moreover, Japan maintains a fast breeder reactor to consume plutonium but that reactor has been accident prone. It is managed by Japan's Atomic Energy Agency and Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Agency has even criticized its existence. The fast breeder reactor is less likely to be operational in a way that would consume plutonium more than light water reactors. Western states, including the U.S., are skeptical that the fast breeder reactor will ever have a practical use and some are even critical of Japan for maintaining its fast breeder reactor plan. The fact that Japan nonetheless maintains such a plan indicates both Japan's delay and its weakness in planning for nuclear plants and reprocessing, all of which results in impairing Japan's nuclear policy.

The previous administration called for zero nuclear power plants, but questions have been raised as to whether that administration had a plan for securing stable energy sources without incurring higher costs. If nuclear power plants stop operating, the question remains as to what to do with spent fuel and unneeded plutonium. No country, including the U.S., is likely to accept Japan's plutonium.

If Japan is to maintain a nuclear fuel cycle, which includes reprocessing, it must solve safety issues. This includes preventing human errors even when its facilities and technologies are superior. These issues are all very difficult. Nonetheless, to ensure public safety and to secure stable sources of energy, Japan must review them thoroughly prior to the time that the Japan-U.S. Nuclear Agreement expires in July 2018.