Japan eyes U.S. nuclear pact that renews automatically amid Trump administration vacancies

Kyodo

Japan will seek a nuclear energy pact with the United States that renews automatically while it continues reprocessing spent fuel and enriching uranium, government sources said Tuesday.

The government plans to forgo a long-term pact similar to the 30-year bilateral agreement that expires in July next year, according to the source. Officials want the new type of agreement because they have little time for talks amid vacancies in U.S. departments tasked with negotiations under President Donald Trump’s administration, the sources said.

Furthermore, the government apparently wants to avoid facing potentially harsh demands from Washington over such matters as the large stockpiles of plutonium that have built up over years of reprocessing under the current pact. The plutonium can be used to produce nuclear weapons, posing a potential proliferation risk, which worries Washington.

The bilateral agreement that entered into force in July 1988 authorizes Japan for 30 years until July 2018 to establish a nuclear fuel recycling system in which spent fuel from nuclear reactors is reprocessed to extract uranium and plutonium. The two can then be recycled into fuel called mixed oxide, or MOX, for use in fast-breeder reactors or conventional nuclear reactors.

But the reprocessing project has faced growing uncertainty as most nuclear plants have suspended operations amid safety concerns following the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The trouble-prone Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Fukui Prefecture will also be decommissioned despite its envisioned key role in the fuel recycling plan.

Despite the setbacks, the government wants to extend the agreement in its current form — with the ability to reprocess spent fuel and enrich uranium for nuclear fuel. But the prospect of a further buildup of plutonium could prompt calls for caution from some in the United States.

If the pact is renewed with the automatic extension clause, it could be terminated at a later date if either party gives notice six months in advance. But the government has judged that the U.S. is unlikely to greatly change its policy given that officials in charge of such negotiations at the State and Energy departments have yet to be named, the sources said.