September 25, 2017 5:00 am JST

US to renew nuclear pact with Japan

Japan would be able to continue to stockpile plutonium

TOMOYUKI KAWAI, Nikkei staff writer

The Monju fast breeder reactor was to use plutonium as a fuel, but it has never been placed into full operation and is now slated to be decommissioned.

WASHINGTON -- Japan and the U.S. will likely let their existing nuclear cooperation agreement renew automatically when the pact expires next July, enabling Tokyo to continue reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

President Donald Trump's administration has no intention of ending or renegotiating the deal, a spokesperson at the U.S. State Department told The Nikkei Saturday. Since the Japanese government has been seeking the pact's renewal, there is now a good chance that the treaty will simply remain in force without any modifications.

The agreement governing Japan's peaceful use of nuclear energy came into effect in 1988. Its initial 30-year term is to expire in July 2018. Unless either side requests termination or revisions at least six months prior to the expiration date, the accord will be renewed automatically. However, the pact can be terminated by either party at any time with six months' notice.

Special privilege

Under the agreement, the U.S. government grants permission for Japan to process spent nuclear fuel and produce plutonium for peaceful uses. This privilege, afforded only to Japan among the nations that do not possess nuclear weapons, has enabled Tokyo to pursue nuclear energy recycling.

If the accord were terminated, Japan would need to secure U.S. permission for each step in nuclear fuel reprocessing. Such a cumbersome requirement would make it impractical for Japan to continue operating a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, effectively putting an end to its nuclear fuel policy. This is why the Japanese government has sought to renew the accord, which is formally known as the Agreement for Cooperation Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Japan Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy.

Unclear vision

While Tokyo now appears to be getting its wish, there is growing concern in the international community about Japan's rising plutonium stockpile. At facilities in and outside Japan, Tokyo possesses roughly 47 tons of plutonium held both home and abroad, which is enough for creating 6,000 or so nuclear bombs.

However, Japan does not have any immediate use for plutonium. Its government decided last year to decommission the Monju fast breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, which was designed to use a plutonium-based fuel. The so-called pluthermal project, which aims to use a mixture of plutonium and uranium known as mixed oxide fuel, to generate power at light-water reactors, has stalled after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

Japan has not done enough to reduce its plutonium stockpile, Thomas Countryman, an ex-assistant secretary of state for international security and nuclear nonproliferation under the Barack Obama administration, said Sept. 13 at a meeting here in the U.S. capital.

There is also a question of fairness, since Japan is the only non-nuclear power that the U.S. allows to produce plutonium, while other countries, such as South Korea, have been asking for a similar deal.

Furthermore, a new reprocessing plant is slated for completion next year. Once this facility, capable of producing 8 tons of plutonium annually, starts operating, Japan will have even more plutonium, for which it has no concrete use.

The Trump administration aims to continue asking the Japanese government about its plans for plutonium. Tokyo will be pressured by the international community to show a clear, realistic road map for reducing its stockpile.

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