Confronting plutonium nationalism in Northeast Asia

By Fumihiko Yoshida | June 30, 2016

Although President Obama trumpeted his commitment to nuclear disarmament at this year’s Washington Nuclear Security Summit and more recently during his visit to Hiroshima, the White House has so far only discussed in whispers a far more pressing nuclear weapons-related danger—that Japan and China may soon be separating thousands of nuclear bombs worth of plutonium from nuclear spent fuel each year. If this level of production occurs, South Korea and other countries will likely try to go the plutonium route. If President Obama is to have a lasting legacy of nuclear threat reduction, his administration needs to do far more than it has to clarify just how harmful this plutonium proliferation would be to keeping peace in East Asia and the world.

Japan has already accumulated about 11 metric tons of separated plutonium on its soil—enough for about 2,500 nuclear bombs. It also plans to open a nuclear spent fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho designed to separate eight tons of plutonium—enough to make roughly 1,500 nuclear warheads a year—starting late in 2018. The Japanese plutonium program has raised China’s hackles. China’s new five-year plan includes a proposal to import a reprocessing plant from France with the same capacity as Rokkasho. Meanwhile, South Korea insists that it should have the same right to separate plutonium as Japan has.

Each of these countries emphasizes that it wants to separate plutonium for peaceful purposes. Yet in each country, there are skeptics who respond whenever this argument is made by a neighbor. China and South Korea suspect that Japan’s large stockpile of plutonium and its plans to operate the Rokkasho plant are designed to afford Tokyo some latent form of nuclear deterrence, i.e. a nuclear weapon option. A huge new Chinese commercial plutonium separation program could give Beijing an option to make far more nuclear weapons than it already has. It is unclear what Russia might make of all of this, or North Korea. One possibility is that either might use such “peaceful” plutonium production as an excuse to further expand its own nuclear arsenal. China might do the same as deterrence to Japan. If Seoul joined in, it would be even more difficult to cap North Korea’s nuclear program.

American officials appreciate these dangers but so far have only hinted at them in public. On March 17th, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noting that the United States was considering the possibility of not renewing its 30-year-old civilian nuclear cooperative agreement with Japan as leverage to encourage a discussion of Japan’s plutonium program. In an interview with the Japan Times, Jon Wolfsthal, senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council, said that if Japan were to change course, it would "find the United States to be supportive;” he was concerned that if Japan did not, a plutonium race in East Asia might ensue. Meanwhile, Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and several key Democrats have called for a time out in the commercial separation of plutonium in East Asia.

So far, Japan’s leadership has not reacted to those calls. Indeed, it is pushing ahead, enacting a new law that mandates that power companies pay for the reprocessing of their spent fuel. The Abe administration also refuses to terminate its plutonium-fueled Monju prototype fast breeder reactor, even though safety and technical problems have prevented its operation for more than 20 years.

Why have Tokyo officials shown such an insensitivity to US concerns? They have made clear that they don’t consider any of the statements US officials have made to constitute an official request from the US government, dismissing them as little more than private musings. “There are many different views in Washington policy circles,” they said, also noting quite correctly that none of comments from Washington has been followed by concrete actions.

The Obama administration and Congress need to speak more clearly. As Countryman said, "(t)here is a degree of competition among the major powers in East Asia. It is a competition that in my view extends into irrational spheres…”

The United States can stop Japan from separating more plutonium and the spread of “plutonium nationalism” in East Asia only by bringing security issues to the front burner in politics and diplomacy. If the United States clearly announces that operations at Rokkasho constitute a security concern, Japan is almost sure to listen. Having the plutonium discussion between Japan and the United States is critically important; the Abe administration puts a high priority on security issues and is also very pro-United States.

Now is the time to speak clearly on these security issues—before China and Japan lock themselves into a plutonium production rivalry that will make cooperation between them and South Korea on pressing issues, including North Korea’s nuclear program, all the more difficult to secure.

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