Tag Archives: reprocessing Japan

The Secret Nuclear Weapons Capabilities of States

South Korea, like the United States, has long relied on nuclear power as a major source of electric power. As a result, it has amassed large stores of spent nuclear fuel and, as in the United States, has experienced political pushback from populations around proposed central sites for the spent fuel.

South Korea also has a history of interest in nuclear weapons to deter North Korean attack. South Korea’s interest in spent fuel disposal and in a nuclear-weapon option account for the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute’s dogged interest in the separation of plutonium from its spent fuel. Plutonium separated from spent fuel can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Two US Energy Department nuclear laboratories, Argonne National Laboratory  and the Idaho National Laboratory have encouraged South Korea’s interest in plutonium separation because of their own interests in the process. Now, a secret, leaked, joint South Korean-US report shows deliberate blindness to the economic and proliferation concerns associated with plutonium separation and lays the basis for policies that would put South Korea on the threshold of being a nuclear-weapon state. 

Japan is the only non-nuclear-armed state that separates plutonium. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute has domestic political support, however, for its demand that South Korea have the same right to separate plutonium as Japan. 

In 2001 Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories (INL) persuaded an energy-policy task force led by then-Vice President Dick Cheney that pyroprocessing is “proliferation resistant” because the extracted plutonium is impure and unsuitable for nuclear weapons. On that basis, Argonne and INL were allowed to launch a collaboration on pyroprocessing research and development with Korea. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute was enthusiastic. It had been blocked from pursuing reprocessing R&D since it had been discovered in 1974 that the institute was part of a nuclear-weapon program.

At the end of the Bush administration, however, nonproliferation experts from six US national laboratories, including Argonne and INL, concluded that pyroprocessing is not significantly more proliferation resistant than conventional reprocessing because it would be relatively easy to remove the weakly radioactive impurities from the plutonium separated by pyroprocessing. The finding that pyroprocessing is not proliferation resistant precipitated a struggle between the Obama administration and South Korea’s government during their negotiations for a new US-Republic of Korea Agreement of Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. The new agreement was required to replace the existing agreement, which was due to expire in 2014. But the negotiations stalemated when South Korea demanded the same right to reprocess the Reagan administration had granted Japan in 1987. 

At the beginning of September 2021, INL and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute submitted a 10-year report on their joint fuel cycle study. Instead of making a policy recommendation on the future of pyroprocessing, however, the Korea-US Joint Nuclear Fuel Cycle Research Steering Committee decided to continue the joint research. A senior US official with knowledge of the situation, told that “at least three or four more years will be necessary for the two governments to be in a position to draw any actual conclusions related to the technical and economic feasibility and nonproliferation acceptability of pyroprocessing on the Korean Peninsula.”

Excerpts from  Frank N. von Hippel, Jungmin Kang, Why joint US-South Korean research on plutonium separation raises nuclear proliferation danger, January 13, 2022

Benefits of Threshold Nuclear Power: Japan v. China

China has urged Japan to return over 300 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium to the Unites States and to explain how it intends to resolve its surplus plutonium problem. At a regular press briefing in Beijing on 17 February 2014, and in response to a question on Japan’s plutonium stocks, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stated:

“China attaches great importance to nuclear proliferation risks and potential threats posed by nuclear materials to regional security. China has grave concerns over Japan’s possession of weapons-grade nuclear materials… Japan’s failure to hand back its stored weapons-grade nuclear materials to the relevant country has ignited concerns of the international community including China.”

As reported in January 2014, agreement has been reached between the United States and Japan for the return of plutonium used in the Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) in JAERI Tokai Research Establishment, Tokai-mura, Ibaraki Prefecture. The formal agreement is expected to be concluded at the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands in March 2014. In its latest declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and in its 2012 plutonium management report Japan stated that the FCA facility has the total of 331 kg of plutonium, of which 293 kg is fissile plutonium. The largest share of this plutonium was supplied by the United Kingdom in addition to that supplied by the United States.

Commenting further, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared:

“China believes that Japan, as a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, should strictly observe its international obligations of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security. The IAEA requires all parties to maintain a best possible balance of supply and demand of nuclear materials as contained in the Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium. Japan’s large stockpile of nuclear materials including weapons-grade materials on its territory is an issue concerning nuclear material security, proliferation risks and big supply-demand imbalance.”

In addition to the call for the return of the weapon’s grade plutonium, the Chinese statement also raises a question over Japanese fuel cycle policy and its inability to use its existing plutonium stocks. With all 48 nuclear power reactors shutdown there is currently no demand for its separated plutonium as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. However, Japanese policy continues to plan the commercial operation of the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant as early as October 2014, following a safety assessment by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA). In its latest declaration to the IAEA, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission reported that as of 31 December 2012, Japan held 44,241 kg of separated unirradiated plutonium, of which 9,295 kg was stored in Japan and 34,946 kg was stored abroad. Japan’s plutonium program, its challenges and alternatives was recently addressed at a Tokyo symposium and in detailed analysis by IPFM.

As yet, there has been no official response from the Japanese government to the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, which has been extensively reported through Chinese media outlets

By Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider, China calls on Japan to return weapons grade plutonium to the United States, International Panel on Fissile Materials, Feb 18, 2014