Japan Has Enough Plutonium to Make Thousands of Nukes

Tokyo doesn't want the bomb, but it doesn't know what to do with the fuel stockpile.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

So, I like electronic music. A lot. And there is no more important progenitor of electronica than Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. If you don’t know Sakamoto, just go buy his 1978 solo effort, "Thousand Knives," then binge with "Yellow Magic Orchestra." It’s OK; this column will still be here when you get back.

I bring up Sakamoto because he is also famous for his long opposition to Japan’s construction of a giant industrial plant to separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel in Rokkasho-mura. Sakamoto organized the "Stop Rokkasho" campaign, complete with a hip compilation CD and a snazzy website. That was in 2006. Six years later, in 2012, Sakamoto organized a "No Nukes" concert closed out by a reunited YMO. (Yes, that’s a Kraftwerk cover!) Today, in 2014, the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is still not operating — and Sakamoto is still protesting. (Well, he’s taking a break for the moment while fighting cancer; here’s to a speedy recovery.)

You might be wondering what’s taking so long. The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant was originally scheduled to begin operation in April 1996. Yet, on Oct. 30, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd (JNFL), the operator of the Rokkasho plant, announced that the plant would not begin operations until at least March 2016. This is the twenty-first delay for the plant.

The latest hold-up is partially procedural. After the March 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima, where a tsunami resulted in meltdown at three nuclear reactors on site, Tokyo reorganized its nuclear regulatory process and increased standards. According to JNFL, the required safety evaluation is taking longer than expected. Maybe JNFL officials are also holding out for one more YMO reunion.

More likely, I suspect, is that JNFL is cautious in the face of  ambivalence within Japanese society toward nuclear power, and Tokyo’s commitment to reuse plutonium. Many in Japan oppose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to restart the country’s fleet of nuclear reactors shut down in the wake of Fukushima. You don’t have to be the godfather of techno to wonder whether this is a good idea. I suspect that officials at JNFL may have decided this is not the moment to press the issue of starting operations at Rokkasho.

Japan’s plutonium stockpile is a constant topic of discussion. Japan is the only non-nuclear weapons state that sits on tons of separated plutonium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons. Japan’s neighbors never tire of pointing out Tokyo’s stockpile of plutonium in the same breath as the empire’s wartime past. I doubt much of this carping is sincere, but Japan’s plutonium policies do create nonproliferation problems. Although I don’t believe Japan would use its civil plutonium in a bomb program, the stockpile — and Tokyo’s repeated comments about the importance of reprocessing for energy security — makes it much harder to convince countries with worse nonproliferation records (from Iran to South Korea) to restrain themselves. The Abe government should take advantage of the delay in operations at Rokkasho to think about setting a better example.

Japan’s long-standing emphasis on nuclear energy reflects a national neuralgia about energy security. Japan has few traditional energy sources on its home islands. After all, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a prelude to the seizure of the Dutch East Indies oil resources that Tokyo believed were essential to continue the war. Post-war Japan has been peaceful, but no less mindful of energy security issues. Today, Japan maintains the world’s second-largest petroleum reserve after Uncle Sam. And, more importantly, Japan has invested heavily in nuclear energy. Since Japan has no uranium, it spent vast sums to develop the infrastructure to recover and reuse plutonium from spent fuel.

The massive $30 billion Rokkasho plant — where Japan will separate plutonium from spent fuel — is the centerpiece of this effort. Despite massive investments, however, Japan has never been able to develop the companion technology: a fast reactor that will consume the plutonium. Japan’s fast reactor at Monju — like others attempted in the United States, France, and elsewhere — is so hot it is cooled by molten sodium. Molten sodium explodes on contact with water. Guess how well that works out?

Sodium-related nuclear accidents occurred in the United States in 1959 and again in 1964, the latter giving us the Reader’s Digest book, We Almost Lost Detroit. (We also got a great Gil Scott Heron song out of it, which has been sampled a couple of times.) Monju itself experienced a serious accident in 1995; regulators recently discovered it sits on a fault line. Japanese authorities are now considering pulling the plug on Monju. Without it, Japan will have to mix the plutonium with uranium in something called mixed oxide fuel(MOX) that can be used in existing reactors after a bit of conversion. The problem is that Japan has not yet completed the MOX plant at Rokkasho and only a small number of Japanese nuclear power plants were converted before the Fukushima accident. Like the rest of Japan’s nuclear power plants, these are not operating.

That means that once Japan begins operating Rokkasho, there is no place for the plutonium to go. Its stockpile of plutonium will grow. And grow. And grow. Japan has more than 10 tons of separated plutonium — enough for thousands of nuclear warheads. And don’t let anyone tell you that plutonium produced in a commercial reactor can’t be used in a nuclear weapon. The United States did it in 1962. Here is the definitive statement on the matter from the U.S. Department of Energy: "a potential proliferating state could build a nuclear weapon from reactor grade plutonium that would have an assured, reliable yield of one or a few kilotons (and a probable yield significantly higher than that)." One kiloton is wimpy by modern standards, but it will still "suck the paint off your house and give your family a permanent orange Afro."

Despite having nowhere for the plutonium to go, Japan has invested an enormous amount of money in Rokkasho. The local community in Aomori prefecture accepted the storage of Japan’s spent nuclear fuel based on the expectation that the spent fuel would be separated and the waste shipped elsewhere for long-term disposal. But there is no repository at the moment. Japan’s energy policy is screwed up, but things are usually screwed up for a reason. Tokyo started down this path in the 1970s when reprocessing was all the rage. (People had a lot of terrible ideas in the 1970s. Look how angry it made Mike Watt.) I understand how hard it would be for Japan to walk away from a $30 billion investment with no clear plan to store and dispose of the spent fuel.

But is it too much to ask Japan to set a better example?

I recently directed a project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that convened a group of Japanese and American experts to discuss the security implications of Japan’s fuel cycle choices. Although the group did not tell the Japanese people what to do about Rokkasho or other nuclear sites, the members did note that the debate over fuel cycle choices in Japan has "given insufficient consideration to regional security implications of domestic decisions" about nuclear energy. The group also agreed that Japan is an important model for many other countries considering their own reprocessing programs.

Personally, I think that this most recent Rokkasho delay is an opportunity for Japan to reassess the security impact of reprocessing. If Japan’s policymakers can’t bring themselves to say that reprocessing is a mistake, maybe Japan could at least delay putting Rokkasho into operation until there is a plan to use the 10 tons of plutonium it has already accumulated? Tokyo already has a policy to not accumulate plutonium that does not have a specific end-use. Despite this, Japan’s stockpile of plutonium continues to grow — because that policy does not require Japan to actually use its existing plutonium before separating more. Japanese experts, like the vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, Tatsujiro Suzuki, have written proposals urging Tokyo to stop piling up plutonium. Tokyo could require JNFL to demonstrate demand for plutonium prior to reprocessing. It could limit the size of the existing stockpile of plutonium and reduce the current stockpile before undertaking new spent fuel reprocessing, it could establish a formal requirement for alternatives to the current MOX approach.

None of these steps would require Japan to close Rokkasho. Sakamoto will recover and continue to organize concerts and protests. We may even get that YMO reunion. (Would it be wrong to co-schedule some kind of working group meeting if that happens?) But even if Japan doesn’t shut down Rokkasho, it can have an open debate about the security downsides of its energy policies and think about what sort of model it wants to set for the world. It would be an amazing thing if Japan could fashion an energy policy that was an influential and forward thinking as its contributions to electronica.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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