WASHINGTON – The United States would back a change to Japan’s nuclear fuel reprocessing program because there are concerns it may lead to an increase in its ally’s stockpile of unused plutonium, a senior White House official said.
If Japan were to change course “they would find the United States to be supportive,” Jon Wolfsthal, senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council, said in a recent interview.
Wolfsthal’s remark reflected concerns in President Barack Obama’s administration about the future of Japan’s large plutonium stockpiles, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.
Wolfsthal said the upcoming renewal in 2018 of a bilateral nuclear agreement with Japan “has the potential to become a very controversial issue.”
The 1988 pact authorizes Japan to reprocess used nuclear fuel when the fuel includes U.S.-produced uranium.
“There is no question that plutonium recycling in Japan has been expensive, that it is a challenging future for Japan,” Wolfsthal said.
In March, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida defended the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel, saying the United States has approved it.
The United States and Japan have discussed what a decision to have large stockpiles of plutonium that “don’t have a dedicated pathway to use and disposition” means for global efforts to restrict reprocessing and enrichment, he said.
If Japan keeps recycling plutonium, “what is to stop other countries from thinking the exact same thing?” Wolfsthal said, apparently referring to concerns that other Asian countries such as China and South Korea may compete to get involved in similar projects.
Under the Japanese reprocessing program, plutonium extracted from used nuclear fuel is recycled to make plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel usable at nuclear power plants. Japan has licensed companies in foreign countries such as Britain and France to produce the so-called MOX fuel.
Japan came up with the plutonium recycling program in the face of potential international suspicion that a large stockpile of plutonium could encourage it to go nuclear.
But the plutonium recycling effort has hit a snag because most of Japan’s nuclear plants have suspended operations due to public safety concerns since the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant following the giant earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
Obama has urged Japan and other countries to give up unused nuclear materials including plutonium as part of his efforts to strengthen control over the management of nuclear substances all over the world to prevent terrorists from obtaining them.
Japan had 48 tons of plutonium as of the end of 2014 and sent 331 kilograms of plutonium to the United States earlier this year.