With the trouble-prone Monju fast-breeder reactor set to be scrapped and nuclear materials piling up, Japan’s policy on reprocessing atomic fuel is becoming increasingly uncertain.

According to a U.S. government source, the administration of President Barack Obama has had discussions on the “comprehensive advance consent” that the U.S.-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement provided for 28 years ago.

Comprehensive advance consent is a special privilege under which Japan is the only country without nuclear weapons that is allowed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from the U.S.

A commercial-scale reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, has been under construction since 1993 and is scheduled to start operation in 2018.

Reprocessing is a dual-use technology that extracts plutonium, usable for mixed-oxide (MOX) fuels in nuclear power reactors and also for nuclear weapons.

The current U.S.-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement, which went into effect in 1988, has an initial duration of 30 years. After that period, either party may terminate the agreement by giving six months’ written notice.

According to the U.S. government source, some policymakers have raised the option of reviewing the current U.S. stance to push Japan toward modifying its nuclear fuel-cycle policy, but others doubt it would make any difference, since Japan is eager to retain its freedom to reprocess.

The source said there was a strong view inside the U.S. government that relations with Japan, which hosts major U.S. military facilities, should be reviewed but that comprehensive advance consent must be retained.

Since the mid-1950s, Japan has pursued its own nuclear fuel-cycle program, which consists of two key pillars: one to develop and commercialize sodium-cooled fast reactors like Monju, and the other to commercialize the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. After reprocessing, extracted plutonium will be used for MOX fuels in fast reactors and light-water reactors.

However, Japanese nuclear policy seems to be at a standstill, and its prospects look bleak. The policy has been in greater disarray since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, a turning point in the public’s shift toward phasing out nuclear power.

Also, the “plutonium problem” overshadows Japan’s ambitious fuel-cycle policy. As a result of past reprocessing operations domestically and overseas, Japan has accumulated around 48 metric tons of plutonium — enough to make 6,000 nuclear weapons.

During congressional testimony in March, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, Thomas Countryman, raised the strategic implications of Japan’s reprocessing program and South Korea’s policy of seeking its own reprocessing technology, saying, “I would be very happy to see all countries get out of the plutonium reprocessing business.”

Countryman said, “There are genuine economic questions where it is important that the U.S. and its partners in Asia have a common understanding of the economic and nonproliferation issues at stake before making a decision about renewal of the 123 agreement, for example with Japan.” A “123 agreement” comes under Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which established cooperation as a prerequisite for nuclear deals with other nations.

U.S. nongovernment specialists echo these concerns.

“I think Japan needs to reassess its plutonium requirements. It needs to do a zero-based approach,” said Sharon Squassoni, director and senior fellow of the proliferation prevention program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“The U.S. is between a rock and a hard place. They don’t like reprocessing. We do not do reprocessing in this country. We do not believe that nuclear energy requires reprocessing. And yet, they’re also bound to say that other countries’ fuel cycle decisions are their own. It is their sovereign right, and we will not interfere with that,” she said in a recent interview.

During consideration of the 1988 agreement, “Certain officials in the Defense Department were strongly opposed to reprocessing … and made their views known to the White House. The White House reviewed their comments but overruled their recommendations and approved the agreement as recommended by the State and Energy departments,” Fred McGoldrick, a former senior State Department official, recalled in an email about deliberations by the Reagan administration in which he was involved.

“The accumulation of plutonium by Japan was not anticipated by Congress or any agency of the U.S. government,” he added.

Two years ago, McGoldrick wrote a proposal for addressing at least some aspects of the problem Japan is currently facing in a U.S. journal, Arms Control Today. “Japan could alleviate international apprehensions and strengthen the global nonproliferation regime by placing its excess plutonium under the custody of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” he wrote.

Under the IAEA Statute, member states can deposit any “excess” of fissionable materials in the custody of the IAEA to prevent stockpiling.

“I see no easy answers. Japan may have to adopt several strategies including long-term spent fuel storage, plutonium disposal and reprocessing. But starting Rokkasho should be tied to a near-term use of the plutonium in reactors so as not to increase plutonium stocks,” McGoldrick added in the email exchanges.

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