Japan and U.S. extend nuclear pact as Tokyo looks to reduce plutonium stockpile

Kyodo

Japan and the United States extended a bilateral nuclear agreement Tuesday that has served as the basis for Tokyo’s push for policies emphasizing the recycling of nuclear fuel.

The pact, which entered into force in July 1988, has authorized this nation to reprocess spent fuel, extract plutonium and enrich uranium for 30 years. As neither side sought to review it before the end of its term the deal will remain effective, leaving Japan the only country without nuclear arms that is allowed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

The passing of the initial 30-year period does raise uncertainty over the future of the pact, as it can now be terminated at any time six months after either party notifies the other.

The United States is perceived to be concerned about Japan’s stockpiles of plutonium, though Tokyo has limited its research, development and use of nuclear energy to peaceful purposes.

“Japan will do all it can to maintain the nuclear nonproliferation regime while keeping the (Japan-U.S.) nuclear pact,” Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters.

“It will be important to make efforts toward reducing the large amount of plutonium that Japan possesses,” Kono added.

Japan is responsible for 47 tons of plutonium, which is enough to produce about 6,000 nuclear warheads.

Of that 47 tons, around 10 tons were stored within Japan and the remainder in Britain and France as of the end of 2016, according to government data.

In early July, Tokyo clearly stated for the first time in its basic energy plan that it will trim the amount.

Spent fuel from nuclear reactors is reprocessed to extract uranium and plutonium, which is then recycled into fuel called mixed oxide, or MOX, for use in both conventional nuclear reactors and fast-breeder reactors.

But most nuclear power plants in the nation remain offline following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, as they need to pass newly established safety regulations before they can be restarted.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has maintained its pro-nuclear policy, saying that plants able to clear the new stricter safety checks will resume operations. But restarting them has been difficult amid persisting safety concerns.

Nuclear regulators are also still assessing the safety of a planned spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in northeastern Japan after repeated delays to its commissioning.

When fully operational the Rokkasho plant, a key pillar of the country’s nuclear fuel recycling policy, will be able to produce around 8 tons of plutonium each year.