Announces Policy Change on Plutonium Overhang

Published: Aug 1, 2018

Edited by William Burr

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Turning Point for Nuclear Nonproliferation Efforts

Debates, Media Coverage, Pressure from Allies and Neighbors, and Economic
Realities Compel Retreat from Decades-Long Plutonium Delusion 

Washington D.C., August 1, 2018
On 31 July 2018, the Japanese
Atomic Energy Commission announced that “Japan will reduce the size of its
plutonium stockpile.” The move marks a potential turning point on an issue
that has carried difficult and troubling implications for nuclear
nonproliferation policy. For years, the JAEC has been operating reprocessing
facilities to turn spent reactor fuel into plutonium for use in fueling
reactors. A new reprocessing facility in the works at Rokkasho would produce
even more plutonium, but the surpluses of plutonium accumulated far beyond any
need for reactor fuel.  The surpluses have raised concern for years about
the vulnerability of plutonium stocks to terrorism and Japanese nuclear weapons
potential, but also unease that a reprocessing program had been setting a bad
precedent internationally.

What the JAEC announcement means in practice is unclear but
according to a Reuters story,
pressure from China and the United States had an impact on Japanese
decision-making. Other sources indicate that Foreign Minister Tarō Kōno played
a key role in pushing a policy change forward (suggesting the role of
international influence).  In any event, that the U.S. may have shown
concern to Japan is consistent with the more critical perspective on
reprocessing that developed during the Obama
 and that the current administration has continued.

In 2017, the National Security Archive contributed to the policy
discussion by publishing documents from the late 1970s and 1980 (see below),
which presented the debate within the Carter administration on Japanese
reprocessing. While some senior officials wanted to give Tokyo license to
reprocess using U.S.-supplied uranium—which became official U.S. policy during
the Reagan administration–others argued that Japan would develop plutonium
surpluses far beyond what could be used as reactor fuel. The publication of the
U.S. documents received extensive media attention in Japan, including Japan Times and
inspired a major article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Ambassador Gerard C. Smith, responsible
for nonproliferation policy during the Carter administration, meeting with
President Jimmy Carter, 24 October 1979.  Concerned about U.S.-Japan diplomatic
relations, Smith wanted Japan to have more leeway in reprocessing spent nuclear
reactor fuel so that it could develop fast breeder reactors, although some
worried that that would lead to mounting plutonium surpluses (Photo courtesy of
Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

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