Nuclear issues involving North Korea, Japan on table at Washington summit


Staff Writer

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is expected to be high on the list of topics that leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, will discuss.

Obama plans to hold a trilateral summit with Abe and Park on Thursday morning, and later in the day he is scheduled to have a one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Also on the agenda will be Japan’s own nuclear problems, especially proliferation concerns if and when Aomori Prefecture’s Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant for spent nuclear fuel goes into operation. The summit is aimed at preventing nuclear materials and technologies from falling into the hands of rogue states and terrorist groups.

Abe left for Washington on Wednesday.

This year’s summit is also the last before a 1988 agreement between the U.S. and Japan on peaceful uses of nuclear energy expires in 2018. That agreement allows both nations to supply or buy from each other, and Article 8 specifies that cooperation shall only be for peaceful purposes.

“Material, nuclear material, equipment and components transferred pursuant to this agreement . . . shall not be used for any nuclear explosive device, for research specifically on or development of any nuclear explosive device, or for any military purpose,” the article reads.

A current provision allows either party to terminate the agreement after that with six months’ prior notice. What changes might be made to the next agreement is the subject of growing discussion among nonproliferation experts.

In a September 2015 article on Japan’s plutonium problem, James Acton, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested that the nuclear agreement should be extended in exchange for three basic pledges from Japan.

First, a promise to restate and clarify its pledge not to separate excess plutonium.

Second is an agreement to make sure the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, once it goes online, produces only as much plutonium as can be consumed.

The facility is currently scheduled to start operations in 2018, although the original starting date of 1991 — a quarter of a century ago — has been delayed nearly two dozen times due to technical problems.

And finally, to solve the problem of a lack of interim storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel, Acton also echoes Abe’s support for building more dry-cask storage facilities (where the nuclear fuel is air-cooled rather than placed underwater in spent fuel pools), and to make sure local government resistance is overcome with more central government money.

He also sees it as unlikely Obama and Abe will talk about a post-2018 agreement at the summit.

“My guess is that the Abe administration would like to discuss the agreement with the next (U.S.) administration. Personally, I think this might be a mistake. If Japan’s plans to reopen reactors continue to hit roadblocks, as the court injunction against Takahama (reactors) 3 and 4 typifies, it will find itself in a more difficult position in 2017. That’s because if the agreement is to be renegotiated, it must be completed by very early 2018 to allow time for congressional review,” Acton said in an email to The Japan Times.

In a letter sent to Abe earlier this week, nearly 100 Japanese peace activists, professors, antinuclear activists, nonproliferation experts and former Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, as well as dozens of activists and experts overseas, called on Japan to announce at the summit that it will freeze the Rokkasho plant, which is designed to separate around 8,000 kg of plutonium annually.

At the end of 2014, Japan possessed about 47,800 kg of separated plutonium. Of this amount, 10,800 kg was in Japan, 20,700 kg was in the United Kingdom, and France held 16,300 kg.

At the same time, the U.S. had about 50,000 kg of surplus weapons-grade plutonium.

The International Panel on Fissile Material calculated that the total amount of civilian separated plutonium worldwide in 2014 totaled 270,000 kg.

“Further accumulation of nuclear weapon-usable material is a concern for the international society and for Japan’s neighbors, who wonder why Japan is separating such huge quantities of directly weapon-usable material,” the letter read.