A 30-year nuclear cooperation agreement between Japan and the U.S. that expires in July is set to be automatically renewed. The renewal is accompanied by the U.S. government’s continued approval of Japan’s reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.
The extension of the pact, officially 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, may be desirable in the short term to the Japanese government, which wants to maintain its nuclear power policy. But it only serves to deepen the contradictions in Japan’s fuel reprocessing policy, in terms of both its energy policy and efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Additionally, the accord will have an unstable status following the renewal, allowing either party to end it with six months’ notice. Instead of passively renewing the agreement, Japan should be using the pact’s impending expiry date as an opportunity to change course on its fuel reprocessing policy.
The Japanese government has upheld the nuclear fuel cycle — in which plutonium that is extracted from spent nuclear fuel is reused as fuel in nuclear reactors — as a national project. Even after the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant broke out, the government has not changed its policy of reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel.
Pluthermal power generation, which entails plutonium being burned, is currently being conducted in two light-water nuclear reactors, but has not been economically efficient. The nuclear fuel cycle was meant to be realized through a fast-breeder reactor cycle, but the government’s decision to decommission the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor has effectively signaled the project’s failure. Many major countries such as the U.S., the U.K. and Germany have pulled out of their respective nuclear fuel cycle projects.
Despite this state of affairs, Japan possesses, both in Japan and overseas, 47 metric tons of plutonium that it obtained through fuel reprocessing. Furthermore, it maintains plans to finish building a nuclear reprocessing plant in the Aomori Prefecture village of Rokkasho, which would allow the extraction of up to 8 tons of plutonium per year from spent nuclear fuel.
From the standpoint of preventing the proliferation of nuclear arms, it is highly problematic to be in possession of massive volumes of plutonium — which can be used to build nuclear weapons — without having specific plans for its consumption. It would only cause heightened tensions with China and South Korea, and it’s only natural that it has drawn concerns from the U.S. Moreover, there’s no denying the possibility of such stockpiles becoming the target of terrorist attacks.
The completion of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant’s construction has now been delayed for the 24th time, to at least three years from now. It is important to take this as an opportunity to freeze reprocessing plants, and reconsider withdrawing entirely from the fuel cycle project.
To do so, however, we must address what will happen to the spent fuel in Aomori Prefecture. For now, spent nuclear fuel is considered a resource. But it turns into radioactive trash if Japan decides to stop reprocessing. If the fuel cycle project were to be stopped, the Aomori Prefectural Government is bound to demand that spent nuclear fuel be taken in by nuclear power plants around the country.
There is no way out of this problem without the government bearing down to pursue a long-term solution. We urge the government to thoroughly discuss options in its basic energy plan’s revision process that is currently underway.