Japan's Plutonium Reprocessing Dilemma

Shinichi Ogawa and Michael Schiffer

Ever since it was attacked with nuclear weapons six decades ago, Japan has been at the forefront of international nonproliferation efforts. Yet, as the world has focused recently on the dangers posed by some elements of the civilian nuclear power industry, Japan has found itself in the crosshairs of proliferation concerns.

The international community has focused particularly on Japan’s planned plutonium reprocessing facility in Rokkasho-mura, which is scheduled to begin operating as early as July 2006. It would be the first active, civilian reprocessing facility in a non-nuclear-weapon state. It would also be one of the first and largest of such facilities to come online since President George W. Bush and Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), called for limits on the construction of new plutonium reprocessing or uranium-enrichment facilities. These facilities can be used to develop nuclear fuel for civilian nuclear plants but also can provide the essential fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Those who favor limiting the spread of such facilities argue that the Rokkasho facility should be sacrificed for the greater good of nonproliferation and the prevention of a risky “virtual nuclear arms race.” Japanese officials have in essence taken another tack in their attempt to square their quest for a more complete nuclear fuel cycle with their desire to play a constructive nonproliferation role. Japan’s long and proud nonproliferation record, they say, should become the effective standard against which to judge other countries that want such facilities.

Japan’s Nonproliferation Policy

Soon after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, Japan decided not to develop or to possess nuclear weapons. In 1955 it adopted the Atomic Energy Basic Law, which limits the use of nuclear energy to nonmilitary areas. This approach was reconfirmed in 1967, when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato declared the so-called three non-nuclear principles in the Diet: Japan would not possess, manufacture, or introduce nuclear weapons.[1]

When Japan signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970, the Sato cabinet specified three conditions that would have to be met for Japanese ratification: concrete steps toward disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states; clear protection of the security interests of non-nuclear-weapon states; and a fair and equal system of international safeguards.

Although the third condition was met through a new safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 1975, Japan compromised on the other two conditions, settling for a decision to increase its own nuclear disarmament efforts in lieu of “concrete” measures taken by the nuclear-weapon states and calling for a reconfirmation of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and U.S.-Japanese security relationship as a substitute for broader measures to guarantee the security of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Since then, Japan has backed incremental disarmament efforts while continuing to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Japanese officials seem to have believed that gradual disarmament would not endanger the U.S. nuclear deterrent as long as U.S. nuclear forces are dominant and other nuclear-weapon states reduce their forces in parallel with the United States.[2]

Japan fully supports the nonproliferation regime. For example, Japan has helped lead international efforts to try and bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force. It also has provided technical assistance to developing countries to support the development of the International Monitoring System for verifying compliance with the CTBT.

In the late 1990s, Japan became the first state in possession of civilian nuclear power reactors to sign and put into effect an IAEA additional protocol. The 1997 Model Additional Protocol allows the IAEA to broaden its safeguards and inspections so as to better ensure that states do not have undeclared facilities and activities that could be engaged in military work.

Since September 2004, Japan’s model behavior has made it the test case for the IAEA’s large-scale implementation of integrated safeguards, which are nonredundant and streamlined inspection activities with more short-notice and challenge inspections. Japan is estimated to be the subject of about 20 percent to 30 percent of the IAEA’s inspection activities.[3]

Japan also has bilateral cooperative agreements on peaceful uses of nuclear energy with Australia, Canada, China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Under these agreements, Japan has agreed to accept various additional nonproliferation conditions and controls, such as placing the movement and handling of its plutonium under close scrutiny.[4] It is a member in good standing of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 45-member group of states that have voluntarily agreed to coordinate their export controls governing transfers of civilian nuclear material and nuclear-related equipment and technology to non-nuclear-weapon states.

Some analysts have suggested there are circumstances that may well merit Japanese reconsideration of its own non-nuclear status: if North Korea were to test its own nuclear weapon and unalterably pull out of the six-party talks, for example, or if the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella deteriorated. Yet, Japanese domestic political sentiment and interests both mitigate any lessening of Tokyo’s commitment to nonproliferation absent a revolutionary change in the nature and structure of the balance of the regional or global security order.

Japan further underscored its commitment to disarmament in a resolution it tabled last year in the UN General Assembly that calls on states to pursue the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The resolution, which prescribes 25 steps ranging from early entry into force of the CTBT to deep reductions by Russia and the United States in their strategic nuclear arsenals, was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 4, 2004, by a 165-3 vote.

Japan’s Energy Dilemma

Nonetheless, Japan also is deeply committed to civilian nuclear power. With virtually no indigenous energy supplies, Tokyo views nuclear power as an affordable, secure, and environmentally attractive energy source. Despite its status as one of the world’s great economic powers, many Japanese policymakers as well as the Japanese public share a deep sense of anxiety that Japan’s position in the world remains tenuous at best. With a lack of natural resources and little strategic depth, energy independence and security has been an animating feature of Japanese “grand strategy” for well more than a century. This sensitivity is even more acute in the context of current questions about the long-term viability of energy alternatives. This would include importing oil from the volatile Middle East at a time when Japan sees its East Asian rival, China, seeking to lock up the supply.

Currently, 53 nuclear power plants are operating in Japan, raising Japan’s self-sufficiency in primary energy supply from an estimated 4 percent to 20 percent.[5]

(By comparison, Germany stands at 25 percent; the United States at 66 percent, and the United Kingdom at 102 percent self-sufficiency.)

Seeking greater self-sufficiency and greater energy security, successive Japanese governments have sought to provide their own nuclear fuel. Initial plans call for utilizing reprocessed plutonium from spent nuclear fuel in the form of plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. Ultimately, Tokyo would like to employ fast-breeder reactors that would be at least 100 times more efficient in the amount of uranium they use than a once-through system that directly disposes of spent fuel.[6]

In 1993, Japan started constructing the Rokkasho-mura plant, its first commercial reprocessing facility, to process spent fuel that it was shipping to France and the United Kingdom. When completed, the plant will able to process about 800 tons of spent fuel annually, which is close to the total spent fuel reprocessed over the past 30 years.[7] The Rokkasho-mura facility is slated to use a unique reprocessing process intended to limit the proliferation danger caused by stockpiles of separated plutonium. Rather than separating the plutonium in one plant and then combining the plutonium with uranium in another plant, Rokkasho-mura would combine these two steps into a process in which MOX would be created under a single roof.

Needless to say, this reprocessing procedure is not without dangers because it is easy to separate out the plutonium from the MOX. Critics point to other problems as well, one being the cost. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Nuclear Energy Agency estimates that it is 2.3 percent less expensive to generate electricity from nuclear fuel that is then disposed of directly than from employing a “closed” nuclear fuel cycle using spent fuel reprocessing.[8] That is, using MOX fuel is far more expensive than using fresh uranium fuel.[9] According to an analysis by experts Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel of a draft study by Japan’s New Nuclear Planning Council, the total extra cost for reprocessing 32,000 tons of Japan’s spent fuel and recycling the plutonium would be about $60 billion. In addition, during construction the capital costs at Rokkasho-mura have more than tripled to about $20 billion.[10]

Critics of Rokkasho-mura also insist that reprocessing would do little to alleviate certain aspects of Japan’s spent fuel problem, which represents a potential political headache for the Japanese government.[11]

Nonetheless, advocates of Rokkasho-mura argue that reprocessing provides a practical means for dealing with the spent nuclear fuel that is piling up in Japan and will soon exceed available storage space. They claim, for example, that reprocessing reduces by half the amount of highly radioactive waste that must be disposed of.[12] Although they acknowledge that reprocessing may prove costly compared to direct disposal, they contend that it is an efficient use of energy resources that offers energy security without worsening global warming.

Last November, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission announced that Japan would reprocess spent nuclear fuel to the maximum of its reprocessing capability and store the remaining spent fuel, if any, in the interim storage sites. In 2010 the commission will re-examine how to dispose of the remaining spent fuel, taking into account the performance of Rokkasho-mura, progress in the research and development of fast-breeder reactor and other advanced reprocessing technologies, and international conditions concerning nuclear nonproliferation.[13]

The commission has a stated goal of making fast-breeder technology fit for practical use by 2015.

Japan’s nuclear fuel-cycle program has made significant progress, but technical and political hurdles remain. The program has been hampered by an accident with a prototype fast-breeder reactor and the lingering anxiety of residents near the site. Yet, Tokyo appears determined to pursue a full-scale independent nuclear fuel cycle, believing it will enhance Japan’s energy security, enable efficient use of energy resources, and contribute to Japan’s overall efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Japan’s Nuclear Energy Program and the NPT

Still, critics argue that Japan’s pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle poses a serious dilemma to global nuclear proliferation efforts. This is because production of reactor-level nuclear materials and weapons-grade nuclear materials follow virtually identical processes. North Korea took advantage of this fact to develop the capability to produce weapons-grade fissile materials under the guise of a civilian nuclear power program; many fear that Iran will soon do so as well. India, Israel, and Pakistan followed similar paths in earlier years.

Therefore, despite all evidence of good intentions, Japan’s policy may be setting a poor precedent. Its pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle may legitimize the actions of other countries to pursue similar technologies and ultimately attain “breakout” capability. They too may seek to build up similarly robust civilian energy programs that, at the flip of the switch, could be militarized.

Indeed, Iran has pointed to the Japanese example on several occasions, arguing, as Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi did in New York this past May, that it is wrong to limit “access to peaceful nuclear technology to an exclusive club of technologically advanced states under the pretext of nonproliferation.”[14]

Finally, although Japan has adopted domestic laws to address this issue, there is the risk that as Japan brings its own nuclear fuel cycle fully online the resultant growth of its fissile material stockpiles could be vulnerable to theft or diversion, creating a significant proliferation risk. With access to fissile material widely regarded as the main technical hurdle facing any country or group that wants to construct a bomb, this is not an insignificant problem.

To cope with such dilemmas, Bush in February 2004 laid out a vision for the future of the nuclear nonproliferation regime that included proposed new restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing plants. In particular, he asked the NSG to ban the provision of reprocessing or uranium-enrichment capabilities to any state that does not possess full-scale facilities already. Bush also proposed to make signing an additional protocol with the IAEA a condition for states seeking imports for their civilian nuclear programs. In addition, he proposed that states that renounce enrichment and processing have reliable access to fuel for civilian reactors.

The Bush approach addresses some of the persistent weaknesses of the current nonproliferation regime, but it also has significant drawbacks. First, as the secret global network headed by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan showed, even some governments within the NSG have trouble stopping clandestine supplier networks. Second, many developing countries argue that the Bush approach compounds the discriminatory elements of the current nonproliferation regime. These non-nuclear-weapon states also complain that Bush does nothing to address one of their core complaints, that the nuclear-weapons states, and the United States in particular, are not doing enough to live up to their obligations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

Bush’s policy also demonstrates a lukewarm attitude toward international institutions that presents a further dilemma for Japanese diplomats. By going through the NSG, Bush has shunted aside broader international institutions or treaties. This comes at a difficult time for Japan, which wants to demonstrate its bona fides in this area as it is currently seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Still, Japan has voiced its support for a Group of Eight action plan approved at July’s Gleneagles summit that endorsed a one-year pause in inaugurating new enrichment and reprocessing facilities.[15]

ElBaradei has put forward a different approach to dealing with fuel cycle issues that relies on greater involvement with international institutions. Like Bush’s proposal, it calls for restrictions on the ability of non-nuclear-weapon states to acquire enrichment or reprocessing technology. Yet, the core of the ElBaradei approach is to establish international mechanisms that would prepare and provide nuclear fuel on universal, nondiscriminatory grounds.[16]

Thus, ElBaradei’s proposal places Japan’s plans for an independent nuclear fuel cycle in jeopardy. Needless to say, it is not popular among senior Japanese officials. In private comments, they say that such a mechanism would undermine their plans while doing little to punish countries with poor nonproliferation records. Further, they claim that a non-nuclear-weapon state that wants nuclear weapons will simply choose not to rely on international mechanisms, and the international community simply does not have any powerful means to force such a state to comply.

Do As We Do…

Therefore, Japan finds itself in something of a quandary. It is an ardent proponent of the nonproliferation regime and seeks a high profile as a pillar of the international community. However, its own civilian nuclear program appears to some to be contributing to the very stress that threatens to pull the nonproliferation regime apart.

Japan wants to resolve this dilemma by drawing on the best elements of the Bush and ElBaradei proposals to drive a subtle and modest conceptual shift in the nonproliferation regime, seeking to define, for the first time, what it means for a state to be “in conformity” with its obligations to the NPT and, from that, to set in place “objective” behavioral benchmarks that can be universally applied and by which states would have access to peaceful nuclear technology. Naturally enough, this approach serves Japan’s dual interests, promoting nonproliferation while preventing changes to its civilian nuclear power program.

Although its efforts have been far from explicit, this implicit doctrine starts with the model of Japan’s own nonproliferation behavior and commitments. Japanese officials are quick to point to Tokyo’s three-decade-long record of transparency and compliance with international norms and standards as an essential difference between Japan and Iran or other states with questionable nuclear ambitions.

Japan’s current push, then, is to create effective mechanisms that allow for distinguishing between good and bad actors and, in so doing, create a behaviorally based regime. Thus, as Ambassador Yoshiki Mine argued in introducing Japan’s working paper at the once-every-five-years NPT review conference in May:

[P]eaceful uses of nuclear energy by a non-nuclear-weapon state that carries out nuclear activities with the confidence of the international community by faithfully fulfilling its NPT obligations and by ensuring high transparency of its nuclear activities should not be unduly affected.[17]


Any program that meets these criteria, including verification, safeguards, the physical protection of fissile material, and effective measures to prevent illicit trafficking, would be acceptable.


…And Also As We Ask

In addition to seeking to promote its own behavior as a model, there are several additional elements of Japanese policy that seek to reconcile the Bush and ElBaradei proposals.

Japan’s top priority in this respect is to work with the NSG to develop “objective criteria” to measure compliance with nonproliferation obligations, including adherence to the Model Additional Protocol and strict export controls. The Japanese proposals aim to capture both state actions and those of commercial enterprises. They also seek to enforce NSG standards that require IAEA monitoring of all of the buyer state’s nuclear facilities as a condition for supplying sensitive materials and technologies.

Second, Japan is placing greater emphasis on bilateral and multilateral cooperation in East Asia. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently launched efforts to work bilaterally with other Asian nations to create export control systems and to work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a multilateral basis to develop a regional legal system of export controls, including lists of regulated and dual-use items. This initiative also includes making Japanese experts available for consultations and seminars and seeking to work with commercial enterprises in the region. Earlier this year, Japan hosted the second set of Asian Senior Level Talks on Non-Proliferation in an effort to create an ongoing, multilateral regional forum where states of the region can develop cooperative nonproliferation practices.

Third, Japan is seeking to persuade as many NPT parties as possible to sign an additional protocol. Japanese officials view these protocols as the most practical tool at hand to prevent nuclear materials from being diverted to weapon-grade materials production and have made vigorous efforts to universalize them. In 2002, for example, Japan, in cooperation with the IAEA, hosted the International Conference on Wider Adherence to Strengthened IAEA Safeguards. Attended by 82 participants representing 36 countries, the conference built on the results of earlier regional efforts to encourage ratification of such protocols.

Fourth, to seek to address criticism that the nuclear-weapon states are not living up to their disarmament obligations, Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura stated in New York that Japan remains committed to a process by which “nuclear disarmament measures must be implemented incrementally,” including negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). Japan regards such a treaty not only as a substantial measure for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, but also as an important tool to alleviate the discriminatory nature of the NPT. In the meantime, it supports a moratorium on the production of fissile material for weapons use until an FMCT is in force.


In sum, Japan argues that its good behavior should merit a high degree of latitude to pursue nuclear energy, even including the fuel cycle and, moreover, that its approach can serve as a model for reinvigorating the NPT. To be sure, there are clear risks that Japan’s position may undermine the nonproliferation system. In the context of a system that is already badly compromised and in danger of failure, however, there is also a strong argument to be made that these risks may well be offset by the gains in transparency, verification, safety, and security that extending Japan’s model may bring to the NPT.

Indeed, given the low technical barriers to acquiring sensitive technology and the increasing unwillingness of non-nuclear-weapon states to accept further restrictions on their activities, the Japanese approach would seem to merit due consideration as an effort to rethink and reinvigorate the NPT and place it on a sustainable footing. By allowing the pursuit of nuclear energy for those who wish to pursue it, but only in the context of full operational transparency and a demonstrated long-term commitment to nonproliferation norms and standards, this approach offers a possible solution to the key question of breakout capability. It is only in clearly and transparently repudiating nuclear weapons and demonstrating that renunciation through consistent verifiable good behavior over time that nuclear technology should be gained.


Shinichi Ogawa is director of the research department of Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies and Michael Schiffer is an international affairs fellow in Japan (Hitachi Fellow) of the Council on Foreign Relations and a visiting research fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies. The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the authors only and do not reflect the positions of the National Institute for Defense Studies or the Council on Foreign Relations.


1. Asahi Shimbun, December 11, 1967.

2. Japan’s Security Council and the cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in December 2004 approved “National Defense Program Guidelines for FY 2005 and After” reconfirming this approach, stating that “Japan continues to rely on the nuclear deterrent provided by the United States, while at the same time playing an active role in taking realistic step-by-step measures for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.”

3. The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, “Power Line: Japan’s Commitment to the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy,” Vol. 19 (February 2003).

4. Japan’s obligations to keep the movement of plutonium secure under tight surveillance are detailed in its bilateral nuclear agreements with France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

5. Shunsuke Kondo, “Current Status of Development and Utilization of Nuclear Energy in Japan,” Presentation at the 13th International Conference on Nuclear Engineering, Beijing, May 17, 2005.

6. Atomic Energy Commission of Japan, “White Paper on Nuclear Energy 2003 (Summary),” p. 14.

7. Genshiryoku Iinkai, ed., Genshiryoku Hakusho: Heisei 16 Nen [White paper on nuclear energy 2004] (Tokyo: National Printing Bureau, March 2005), p. 134 (author’s translation).

8. Atomic Energy Commission of Japan, “White Paper on Nuclear Energy 2003 (Summary),” p. 14.

9. Steve Fetter and Frank N. von Hippel, “Is U.S. Reprocessing Worth the Risk,” Arms Control Today, September 2005, pp. 6-12.

10. Ibid.

11. Fetter and von Hippel note that “reprocessing and recycling as currently practiced in France and planned in Japan do not reduce the amount of repository area required for the disposal of radioactive wastes.” Ibid.

12. The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, “Japan’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Program,” February 2003 (fact sheet).

13. Atomic Energy Commission of Japan, “Interim Report on Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy,” November 12, 2004 (author’s translation).

14. Islamic Republic News Agency, “Kharrazi Addresses NPT Review Confab,” May 4, 2005.

15. Wade Boese, “No Consensus on Nuclear Supply Rules,” Arms Control Today, September 2005, p. 41.

16. For a set of five multilateral nuclear approaches proposed by an international experts group appointed by IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, see Miles A. Pomper, “Fuel Cycle Recommendations,” Arms Control Today, March 2005, p. 9.

17. Yoshiki Mine, Statement at the Plenary Meeting of the NPT Review Conference, May 17, 2005.