This year marks 30 years since America entered a nuclear cooperation deal with Japan, which is set to expire this July. Under this pact, Japan, a country that cannot possess nuclear weapons, is permitted to repurpose spent nuclear fuel; with its renewal, enterprises that depend on the nuclear fuel cycle can continue civilian operations.
With the renewal, the Japanese government, which wanted to continue this nuclear policy, can rest easy — but is that really right?
This nuclear fuel cycle policy, in which plutonium is extracted from spent nuclear fuel and reused, is already failing. Either Japan or America can end the agreement with six months’ notice, so it would not be inappropriate to call this arrangement unstable. Isn’t it time for Japan to rethink its policy?
Since the end of World War II, America has provided all of Japan’s nuclear fuel and technology. The nuclear treaty, signed in 1988, allows America to closely monitor Japan’s nuclear activities; it also ensures America can license Japan’s nuclear technology and materials for military use.
The treaty was signed during the Reagan era, allowing Japan the right to recycle spent nuclear fuel — and it also triggered protests from those concerned about nuclear proliferation.
Some current members of the American Congress also share these concerns. After all, Japan currently holds around 47 tons of plutonium, a number that stands out when compared to other nations. Even the United Nations Security Council has pointed this out: “Does Japan actually have nuclear weapons?” “Isn’t such preferential treatment unfair?”
The current situation is all due to the deadlock that is the nuclear fuel cycle.
The Monju nuclear reactor, which was a fast-breeder reactor designed to produce more plutonium than it consumed, was decommissioned, with future plans to proceed looking unlikely.
The issue of spent nuclear fuel cannot be resolved with the usual method of burning plutonium in plutonium-thermal reactors. The Japanese government is also looking at developing fast reactors with France, but the feasibility of this plan is still unclear.
Plans to build a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori are already 20 years behind schedule. Japan should withdraw its participation from the nuclear fuel cycle, outsourcing surplus plutonium to the United Kingdom and France and burying it in American facilities. The spent fuel currently in Aomori is also a pressing concern. These are all difficult truths that the government and energy corporations will eventually have to face. I’d like to see the government take responsibility for solving these issues, rather than simply settling for the renewal of this agreement.