The Japan-US Nuclear Energy Agreement coming into effect 30 years ago extended automatically on July 16, 2018. Once again, Japan, who is an exception of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (commonly known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT), was able to obtain the privilege of enriching uranium and reprocessing nuclear waste as a non-nuclear state.
The Japanese government and the nuclear power industry breathed a sigh of relief as the agreement had been extended as per their wish. However, the 47 tons of plutonium (enough to produce about 6,000 nuclear warheads) obtained through reprocessing nuclear waste and held by Japan at home and abroad has caused concerns about nuclear proliferation risk in the international community.
The core of Japan’s policy towards nuclear fuel recycling is using plutonium extracted from nuclear waste as nuclear fuel. It is also one of the measures for the country to get rid of its heavy dependence on energy import and thus has become a basic policy pushed forward by the Japanese government and the power industry for many years.
According to the NPT, non-nuclear states are prohibited from manufacturing or extracting plutonium from nuclear waste, since it can be diverted to produce nuclear weapons.
However, the Japan-US Nuclear Energy Agreement signed between the two countries in 1988 treated Japan as an exception, allowing it to engage in uranium enrichment and nuclear waste disposal under the premise of not using nuclear materials for nuclear weapons development and accepting supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Previously, Japan had two main ways to recycle nuclear fuel: one was to mix uranium fuel with plutonium fuel extracted from nuclear waste to make uranium-plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which can then be used in plutonium thermal-neutron reactors for power generation; the second was to directly apply the extracted plutonium fuel in the Fast Neutron Breeder (FBR) reactors to generate electricity.
The 47 tons of plutonium held by Japan can only be used slowly, as there are only a few ways to consume it in Japan. Though the Japanese government insists on the principle of “not holding useless plutonium,” in the absence of more ways to consume the material, the Japanese government will not be able to soothe the worries of the international community if it fails to offer a persuasive plan.
According to Japanese media, The US nuclear policy officials have been concerned about the large amount of plutonium held by Japan. At the same time, a large number of US congressmen who advocate denuclearization fear that Japan’s plutonium will be used for nuclear weapons development or increase nuclear proliferation risk.
Therefore, they require Japan to reduce its holdings. Facing the situation, Japan has been worried that the Trump administration would impose strict requirements on it when revising the Japan-US Nuclear Energy Agreement.
Although the Japanese government relieved by the automatic extension of the Japan-US Nuclear Energy Agreement, it has to be clear about how it plans to use the 47 tons of plutonium to address the concerns of the international community.
In addition, the extended agreement will be terminated if any party, whether the US or Japan, issues a notice six months in advance. This has become a secret worry for the Japanese government to implement the nuclear policy.
Disclaimer: The author is Ji Yong with the Legal Daily. The article is published on the Legal Daily on July 16. It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn. Chinamil.com.cn does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.