Japan to return weapons-grade plutonium to U.S.

AP

Japan will return to the United States more than 700 pounds (315 kg) of weapons grade plutonium and a supply of highly enriched uranium, a victory for President Barack Obama’s efforts to secure nuclear materials around the world.

American and Japanese officials announced the deal Monday at the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague — the meeting’s first major breakthrough.

“This is a very significant nuclear security pledge and activity,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told reporters. “The material will be transferred to the United States for transformation into proliferation-resistant forms.”

Yosuke Isozaki, a senior national security adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said handing over the highly enriched uranium and plutonium is part of Japan’s efforts to prevent proliferation and possible abuse of nuclear material by terrorists — the main aim of the Hague summit.

“Japan shares a vision of a world without nuclear weapons,” he said through a translator.

The two countries had been discussing the transfer for some time as part of efforts to resolve concerns about Japan’s large stockpile of spent nuclear fuel and plutonium, a Japanese source said, adding that the U.S. and Japan also are discussing ways to reduce the quantity and toxicity of the radioactive material.

The material designated for transfer to the U.S. has been kept for decades at a research reactor site in the village of Tokai, site of the 1999 criticality accident that killed two workers who mishandled a highly enriched uranium solution. More than 300 people were believed to have been exposed to radiation over the annual limit after a spontaneous chain reaction lasted for 20 hours, spewing radioactive gases out of the complex.

Despite its international pledge not to possess excess plutonium, Japan has kept large amounts of the material sitting around for years. The amount to be returned to the U.S. — enough to produce 40 to 50 nuclear weapons — is a fraction of Japan’s overall stockpile, which is about 44 tons.

Obama, who arrived in the Netherlands Monday morning, has been pressing his foreign counterparts for years to either get rid of their nuclear materials or more tightly secure them.

Even though the majority of Japan’s public favor a nuclear phase-out, the government recently introduced the draft of a new long-term energy policy that proposes maintaining nuclear power as a key energy source, while promising to pursue its nuclear fuel recycling program.

Officials argue they can eventually take care of the plutonium issue, but it is highly uncertain because of the lingering uncertainty surrounding reactor restarts.

In order to slow the increase in its plutonium stockpile, Japan would have to restart about 16 reactors that would burn the plutonium-uranium hybrid fuel called MOX, which at the moment is an overly optimistic plan.

The plan was first reported by The New York Times. The Japanese and American officials insisted on anonymity in order to confirm the plan ahead of Monday’s announcement.

Information from Kyodo added.