OSAKA – Japan’s push to establish a nuclear fuel recycling program and use the plutonium created in the process was the center of an intense debate in the U.S. government four decades ago, pitting those who wanted smooth relations with Tokyo against those who worried the plan might lead to the proliferation of sensitive nuclear technology and plutonium stockpiles.
Formerly classified U.S. State Department and National Security Council memos and cables posted Thursday show that Tokyo began pressing Washington in the late 1970s to let it reprocess spent nuclear fuel from U.S. reactors so the extracted plutonium could be used in the so-called fast breeder reactors Japan wanted to build.
The documents were made available by the nongovernmental Washington-based National Security Archive at George Washington University and the Nuclear Nonproliferation International History project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
In a cable marked “Secret” and dated May 29, 1980, Jerry Oplinger, a staff member at the National Security Council, warned his colleagues that if Japan as well as Britain and France went through with plans to build fuel reprocessing plants, it would create new proliferation risks.
“Any one of these three projected projects would more than swamp the projected plutonium needs of all the breeder R&D programs in the world. Three of them will produce a vast surplus of pure, weapons-grade plutonium amounting to several hundred tons by the year 2000. Not only would that stockpile of separated plutonium constitute a danger in itself, it would eventually drive these nations, and those watching their example, into the recycle of plutonium in today’s reactors for economic reasons,” Oplinger wrote.
Others in the U.S. government at the time supported Japan’s desire to experiment with plutonium. In an Aug. 29, 1979, U.S. State Department confidential memo, it was noted that Japan’s then-minister of science technology Iwazo Kaneko had pressed Washington on the issue.
“He stressed that it was essential for Japan to make maximum use of plutonium, particularly fast-breeder reactors,” the memo says.
Other officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, argued in a memorandum dated June 4, 1980, that U.S. reluctance on Japan’s reprocessing program would hurt bilateral trust. Ultimately, the U.S. would drop its opposition to the plans, but with some apprehension.
The debates occurred in the final stage of preparations for Japan’s first reprocessing plant in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, which become operational in 1981, and reprocessed over 1,000 tons of used fuel for research purposes until 2006, when it no longer had any contracts for reprocessing.
In 2014, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency decided to shut down the plant. Last month, the agency said scrapping the facility over a 70-year period will cost an estimated ¥800 billion. The nation still has about 48 tons of plutonium stockpiled with about 11 tons held domestically and the remainder in Britain and France. Next year, the U.S. and Japan are expected to renegotiate an agreement, originally signed in 1988, to cooperate on nuclear power.