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ECONOMY > Energy

Renewed nuclear pact with U.S. to allow Japan to continue reusing nuclear fuel

  • November 10, 2017
  • , Nikkei , p. 33
  • JMH Translation

The nuclear cooperation agreement between Japan and the U.S., which serves as the basis for Japan’s policy on the nuclear fuel cycle and allows Tokyo to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, will expire in July 2018. Although there were concerns that negotiations for a revision of the pact would face difficulties, the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump made it clear that the treaty will not be reviewed and will be extended automatically. What does the treaty contain and mean for Japan’s nuclear policy?


The nuclear fuel cycle, the center of Japan’s nuclear policy, focuses on separating plutonium and uranium from spent nuclear fuel and reprocessing them for use as fuel at nuclear power plants. But plutonium can be used for nuclear weapons. So a variety of international regulations are imposed on plutonium production from the perspective of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Japan is an exception, among countries that do not possess nuclear weapons the only one allowed to produce plutonium. It is allowed to do so based on the Japan-U.S. nuclear deal.


The accord 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. Under the agreement, the U.S. government grants permission for Japan to export nuclear-related fuels and technologies as long as Japan uses plutonium for peaceful purposes such as power generation and not for making nuclear weapons. The existing agreement came into effect in 1988 and its initial 30-year term is to expire in July 2018.


Japan, which was defeated in World War II, was banned by the Allied Powers from conducting nuclear research while under occupation. When Japan decided to introduce nuclear power in the 1950s, it almost entirely relied on the U.S., from uranium to nuclear apparatuses. In order to receive them, Japan signed a nuclear research agreement with the U.S., the prototype of the existing agreement, in 1955.


Later, in 1968, the Japan and the U.S. concluded a nuclear deal that enabled Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel with the approval of the U.S. Further, the existing agreement reached in 1988 let Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel only for peaceful uses.


The U.S. gave Japan the green light for reprocessing because resource-scarce Japan was eager to possess a nuclear fuel-cycle policy, saying the reuse of spent fuel would give Japan purely domestically produced energy. But there is the view that the U.S. had an ulterior motive in devolving responsibility for maintaining and developing nuclear technologies to Japan: support for the U.S. nuclear industry, which had been ailing since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.


Idle reprocessing facilities


On the other hand, some consider the current Japan-U.S. nuclear treaty problematic. One reason is Japan’s stalled nuclear fuel cycle policy. The reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, is riddled with problems such as water leakage. So the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which authorizes the operation of the facility, temporarily suspended safety checks. Initially, the facility was scheduled to go online in 1997. But the facility will certainly be forced to postpone its start for the 23rd time and it is not clear when the facility will be completed.


Further, almost all of Japan’s nuclear power plants went offline after the accidents at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings’ Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, and Japan’s stockpile of plutonium reprocessed in the U.K. and France increased to some 47 tons, enough to produce 6,000 atomic bombs. Storing the plutonium without any plan for its use may violate the nuclear agreement.


Hurdles for restarting nuclear plants


Satoru Katsuno, chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC), says, “We will not possess plutonium which we have no plans to use.” He is considering reducing the plutonium stockpile by promoting plutonium-thermal projects, in which plutonium is reused at existing nuclear power plants. But the restart of nuclear plants has been delayed and there are no prospects for new plants to be built. So it is likely that plutonium-thermal projects can’t be implemented as planned. So the Japanese government was worried that the U.S. might demand the nuclear treaty be reexamined.


But the Trump administration announced last month its intention not to seek the revision of the treaty. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said, “There are no grounds for renegotiating the deal.” It seems that the issue was not brought up at the summit meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Trump, who arrived in Japan on Nov. 5. The deal will be extended automatically if neither party proposes negotiations for revision. An official of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) sighs with the relief, saying, “We expected tough negotiations. So we were relieved.”


But if the deal is extended automatically, it can be terminated by either party at any time with six months’ notice. The U.S. might seek revision of the treaty if concerns grow over nuclear proliferation in East Asia, such as the nuclear armament of North Korea, fearing the ripple effect of the phenomenon. In that case, Japan would be unable to avoid reviewing its nuclear fuel cycle policy.


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