Just weeks after Japan pledged to return hundreds of pounds of plutonium to the United States for disposal, the Japanese government on April 11 formally endorsed the completion of a factory designed to produce as much as eight tons of the nuclear explosive annually.
The plant is among the key elements of a long-range energy plan approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, reversing the previous government’s efforts to phase out nuclear power in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. The move is generally viewed in Japan as unpopular with the public but has been welcomed by Japan’s utilities, which are struggling with massive debts.
The mammoth plant in the village of Rokkasho, scheduled to be completed in October, is meant to extract plutonium from spent commercial reactor fuel so it can be used in fresh fuel to be burned in the country’s reactors. “With safety first in mind always, Japan will promote…the completion of Rokkasho,” the energy plan states.
Publicly, the Obama administration has said little about Rokkasho, located on the Pacific Coast about 1,000 miles north of Tokyo. But privately, U.S. officials and experts say they are worried that Japan’s operation of the $22 billion facility – in the wake of the country’s closure of most of its nuclear power plants -- will add unnecessarily to its existing stockpile of 44 tons of plutonium, some of which is stored in Japan and some in Europe.
U.S. officials have complained to their Japanese counterparts that the plant lacks an adequate security force, making it a potential target for terrorists. They have also urged Japan to subject the plants’ workers to stringent background checks, a move the Japanese see as being at odds with privacy traditions. U.S. experts also have expressed concern that the plant’s operation will encourage other countries, including South Korea, to constructsimilar plutonium factories.
Japan’s stockpile of plutonium today ranks fifth in the world, behind four nuclear-weapons states. The Chinese government in recent weeks has repeatedly expressed concern about Japan’s plans to produce plutonium “far exceeding its normal needs.”
Tokyo’s decision to proceed follows a joint announcement on March 24 by Abe and President Obama and Abe, at the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands, that Japan would return hundreds of pounds of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium it received under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program in the 1960s and 1970s.
The two leaders said the transfer would further “our mutual goal” of keeping global stocks of nuclear explosive materials to a minimum, to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.
But critics say Rokkasho’s operation would violate that goal.
“Getting Japan’s nuclear reactors, especially the most modern ones, back on line makes good sense,” said Robert Einhorn, who served as special advisor on nonproliferation to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The decision to complete Rokkasho and pursue plutonium production, he said, “suggests that old habits, even highly flawed and expensive ones, die hard.”
Einhorn said opening Rokkasho “without realistic prospects of consuming the resulting plutonium in nuclear reactors would be inconsistent with Japan’s pledge to avoid the buildup of separated plutonium,” and “set an unfortunate example” to other countries about how to ensure energy security.
Japan’s new plan does say that the government will listen to the concerns of “local governments and international society” regarding its plutonium production. “And while we promote nuclear fuel reprocessing and the use of MOX, we will be sure to deal flexibly with our policy for a mid-term to long-term period,” the plan states with some ambiguity.
“We aim to opt for an energy supply system which is realistic, pragmatic and well balanced,” Minister of Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Friday.
Many communities in Japan are dependent on a stream of payments by the federal government to promote the siting of nuclear power plants, but a few have recently expressed concerns about the burning of plutonium-laced reactor fuels.
In early April, the city of Hakodate sued to halt work on a reactor that would be the first to burn such fuel. Hakodate’s Mayor Toshiki Kudo told reporters in Tokyo Thursday that the government and utility had ignored a plea from the municipality to suspend work on the Ohma plant and made “a unilateral announcement that it would go ahead with construction.”
Kudo called the plant “a terrorist target,” and said it could pose a greater safety risk than reactors fueled in other ways.
Angela Erika Kubo contributed to this article from Tokyo.