Time to Stop Reprocessing in Japan

Masako Toki and Miles Pomper

Japan began operations at its first commercial nuclear power plant in 1966. For more than four decades, Tokyo never veered from its goals of increasing nuclear energy’s share of electricity generation and developing a self-sufficient plutonium-based nuclear fuel cycle.

The March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor complex, the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, forced Japan’s government and citizens to reconsider the country’s long-held nuclear policy. Under public pressure, the government advanced a key strategy document calling for phasing out nuclear power, although Tokyo has hesitated to endorse its recommendations formally amid opposition from industry, some local communities, and foreign allies—including the United States, France, and the United Kingdom—that have a stake in Japan’s nuclear policy.

An inadequately discussed aspect of the new policy and the most important from a nonproliferation point of view is Japan’s refusal, even amid a potential nuclear energy phaseout, to abandon its controversial program for reprocessing spent fuel to separate plutonium. Japan is the only nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) non-nuclear-weapon state that possesses full-scale nuclear fuel facilities, including spent fuel reprocessing facilities. Despite Japan’s otherwise admirable nonproliferation record, Tokyo’s reprocessing program has long been a source of concern for Japan’s neighbors and for governmental and nongovernmental nonproliferation advocates around the world because it provides Japan with the ability to produce material that is usable in nuclear weapons. Those concerns have only grown, as other Asian nuclear energy powers, particularly South Korea, point to Japan’s program—and U.S. support for it—as a justification for moving forward with their own reprocessing efforts.

The possibilities for changing this policy have been further clouded by Japanese’s parliamentary elections on December 16. In the first national election since the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory in the lower house of Japan’s National Diet over the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The majority of the Japanese public continues to support the phaseout backed by the previous DPJ government, but the LDP won the election because of dissatisfaction with DPJ performance on other issues, particularly economic concerns.

The LDP, which ruled Japan for nearly half a century until 2009, advocates a more conservative approach to a potential nuclear phaseout than the DPJ or most other Japanese parties. During its time in power, the LDP also promoted Japan’s closed fuel-cycle policy, in which spent fuel from light-water reactors (LWRs) is reprocessed to yield plutonium that could be used in making new fuel. However, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, New Komeito, supports the phaseout of nuclear power as soon as possible, shutdown of the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, and a review of Japan’s fuel cycle policy, including a transition from reprocessing to direct disposal of spent fuel.

Although it is certain that the trend in Japan will be to de-emphasize the role of nuclear power in electricity generation, it is unclear at this stage how fast or far the Japanese government will move forward with phasing out nuclear power. The LDP-led government will likely slow the DPJ policy. Before the December elections in the lower house, in which most of the political parties that supported the phaseout of nuclear energy lost seats, the LDP proposed spending up to 10 years to decide the best long-term energy mix for the country, but endorsed a reduction in Japan’s dependence on nuclear power.

The LDP and New Komeito have reached a compromise agreement under which Japan will reduce reliance on nuclear energy as much as possible. Yet, Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister, favors continuing to build new, more advanced nuclear reactors, different from the earlier generation of reactors that included the ones at Fukushima Daiichi. In addition, the new minister of economy, technology, and industry, Toshimitsu Motegi, has said that completely abandoning the goal of a closed nuclear fuel cycle is not an option.

Yet even reviving short-term use of nuclear power will depend on overcoming opposition from local and provincial authorities one at a time. LDP nuclear policies have already drawn criticism from opposition parties, the media, and the public.

Regardless of the pace of the phaseout, the direction is clear. The new government should take advantage of the changed post-Fukushima nuclear energy environment to put a stop to the country’s costly and unnecessary reprocessing program.

Japan’s Reprocessing Policy

At the inception of its nuclear program, Japan decided on a closed fuel cycle. As a resource-poor and rapidly industrializing country, Japan’s intent was to avoid potential uranium shortages as it turned to nuclear energy to mitigate its strong dependence on imported fossil fuels.

Originally, Japan was planning to use mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel—so called because it is a mix of uranium oxide and plutonium oxide—in fast breeder reactors, which can “breed” more plutonium than they consume. When the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) issued its first long-term plan in 1956, it stated that using fast breeder reactors would be the best option for Japan’s nuclear energy policy. Since then, Japan has attempted to develop commercially viable breeder reactors with the goal of making the country virtually independent in nuclear fuel. Research and development (R&D) work indicated, however, that the reactors would not prove economical, given abundant low-cost uranium.

Moreover, Monju has been plagued with problems. In 1995 it experienced a sodium leak and fire, which idled the reactor for more than a decade. In 2010 there was another accident, and the reactor has been shut since then.

These setbacks failed to slow the momentum toward the closed nuclear fuel cycle given Tokyo’s massive investments in the relevant facilities. These included construction of Monju, the Rokkasho reprocessing plant—owned by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL), whose majority shareholder is the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC)—in Aomori prefecture, and reprocessing and MOX fuel technology R&D at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency at Tokai in Ibaraki prefecture.

Given the problems with breeder-reactor commercialization, the government in 1997 adopted a secondary “pluthermal” option of burning MOX fuel in ordinary LWRs.[1] Before the Fukushima accident, Japan planned to use the pluthermal cycle in the short term and commercialize breeder reactors in the long term. The FEPC, a coalition of private electric utilities, had planned with government encouragement to implement the pluthermal cycle in 16 to 18 power reactors by 2015. Meanwhile, the anticipated commercialization date for breeder reactors had been pushed back to 2050.[2]

Japan has adhered to its policy so far despite domestic and international concerns that it was accumulating separated plutonium that could be used to build nuclear weapons as well as provide fuel for nuclear power plants. By the end of 2011, Japan possessed 44.3 metric tons of separated plutonium—9.3 metric tons within the country and 35 metric tons at reprocessing plants in France and the United Kingdom.[3] Under current contracts, the reprocessors are to return the overseas plutonium to Japan in the form of MOX fuel. Given that International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards assume that only eight kilograms of plutonium are needed for a nuclear weapon, that is enough for thousands of weapons. Japan has the fourth-largest stockpile of civilian plutonium, after the United Kingdom, France, and Russia—all nuclear-weapon states.

Yet, Japan still plans to open the massive and massively expensive Rokkasho reprocessing plant despite years of delays, investments of almost $20 billion, and an ever-diminishing policy rationale. The Rokkasho plant, which has been in the testing phase since 2006, originally was scheduled to become operational in November 2008. Complications during test operations have caused the JNFL to postpone this date 19 times, resulting in a new estimated operational date of October 2013.[4] If the reprocessing plant were to become commercially operational, it would separate and stockpile up to eight metric tons of plutonium annually, enough material for as many as 1,000 nuclear weapons. In April 2012, the JNFL restarted construction of a MOX fuel fabrication plant next to the reprocessing facility.

Policy Review

East Asian Views on Reprocessing

In addition to Japan, several East Asian states possess advanced nuclear infrastructures and have explored reprocessing options. China and South Korea are pursuing commercial reprocessing capabilities, while Taiwan is forgoing the technology due to U.S. influence. Regional security dynamics and economic feasibility strongly influence these governments’ views.

China has extensive experience with reprocessing technology and is pursuing a commercial-scale facility. Beijing began reprocessing for its nuclear weapons program in the late 1960s, first at the Jiuquan Atomic Energy Complex and later at the Guangyuan facility.[1] China has since decommissioned both facilities and converted them to civilian use.[2] In the 1980s, Beijing chose a closed fuel-cycle strategy and began examining commercial reprocessing.[3] In 2007 the China National Nuclear Corporation and Areva signed an agreement to assess the feasibility of a reprocessing plant, with a target operational date of 2025.[4]

South Korea, citing concerns over storage space for spent nuclear fuel, has invested heavily in research on pyroprocessing technology. Approximately 10 percent of the employees at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute are involved in work supporting research for the technology, which dissolves spent fuel in molten salt and then electrochemically separates the fuel’s elements.[5] Under the 1974 U.S.-South Korean nuclear cooperation agreement, U.S. prior consent is required before U.S.-origin nuclear material is “altered in form or content,” in effect preventing reprocessing.[6] With that agreement expiring in 2014, Seoul is seeking a revised agreement allowing pyroprocessing. U.S. officials are concerned about the potential effect of such an agreement on the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which prohibits North and South Korea from possessing reprocessing facilities.

Taiwan maintains a policy of using nuclear power for peaceful purposes without enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel, a legacy of U.S. efforts to shut down Taiwanese nuclear weapons activities in the 1970s.[7] Since that time, the United States has been party to a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement with Taiwan, a trilateral safeguards agreement with Taiwan and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a bilateral safeguards agreement. The current U.S.-Taiwanese agreement gives the United States prior consent rights over the alteration of nuclear material, in effect preventing reprocessing.[8] That agreement is set to expire in 2014, but U.S. leverage over Taiwan’s security arrangements likely ensures that the new agreement will not permit reprocessing.—JONATHAN RAY

Jonathan Ray is a graduate research assistant at the East Asia Nonproliferation Program of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.



1. David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund, “Estimating China’s Production of Plutonium for Weapons,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2003): 65-66.

2. Mark Hibbs, “China Said to Be Preparing for Decommissioning Defense Plants,” NuclearFuel, May 17, 1999.

3. Hui Zhang, “Rethinking Chinese Policy on Commercial Reprocessing” (presentation at the 18th Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference, Busan, South Korea, March 18-23, 2012).

4. “China’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” World Nuclear Association, November 2012, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf63b_china_nuclearfuelcycle.html.

5. Frank von Hippel, “South Korean Reprocessing: An Unnecessary Threat to the Nonproliferation Regime,” Arms Control Today, March 2010.

6. “Agreement for Cooperation Between the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Government of the United States of America Concerning Civil Uses of Atomic Energy,” 1974, art. 7(f).

7. William Burr, “The Taiwanese Nuclear Case: Lessons for Today,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 9, 2007, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/2007/08/09/taiwanese-nuclear-case-lessons-for-today/6cq.

8. Mark Hibbs, “Taiwan and the ‘Gold Standard,’” Arms Control Wonk, July 23, 2012, http://hibbs.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/941/taiwan-and-the-gold-standard.

The nuclear energy policy review launched by Tokyo in the wake of the Fukushima accident and released in September should have provided an opportunity and a further incentive to rethink Japan’s closed fuel-cycle policy, but largely failed to do so.

Last September 14, the Energy and Environment Council (EEC)[5] issued the long-awaited “Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment” with input from several governmental agencies including the JAEC, the Ministry of the Environment, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy. In a deviation from the traditionally closed world of Japanese nuclear policy, the strategy documents considered public opinion.[6]

Based on recommendations from the JAEC, the EEC laid out three scenarios for the future of Japan’s energy policy, indicating different relative shares of electricity production that nuclear energy could provide in 2030.[7] All three scenarios aim to reduce the country’s reliance on nuclear energy below the 30 percent share it contributed before the Fukushima accident and far below the 40 percent share that Tokyo originally envisioned for 2017. The first scenario drops nuclear power to 0 percent of electricity generation, the second to 15 percent, and the third to 20 to 25 percent. The JAEC recommendations called for clearly linking these proposed energy use scenarios to spent fuel options. The first scenario envisioned direct disposal and burial underground for all spent fuel; scenarios two and three would use reprocessing and direct disposal.

The EEC held extensive public hearings on the three options, inviting written public comments between July 2 and August 12. It also held public hearings in July and August in 11 cities, with each hearing attended by approximately 100 to 200 people.[8] Notably, the government conducted “deliberative polling,” which incorporated focus groups and polling of respondents in an effort to reflect public opinion in the new energy policy.[9]

These initiatives to involve the general public in the decision-making process for the nuclear share of the energy supply were laudable, but the EEC options provided to the public did not include the strong linkage to spent fuel options that the JAEC recommended.[10] Asking the public to weigh in on the proportion of nuclear energy to be used but obscuring how those choices would be reflected in fuel cycle policy undermined the transparency the government ostensibly was attempting to create.

This was particularly important because the public outreach showed that the majority of respondents strongly supported a phaseout of nuclear energy by 2030. (In spite of that, the strategy ultimately extended the timetable for the phaseout to the end of the 2030s.)[11] The strategy would accomplish these goals by strictly limiting nuclear power plants to a 40-year operating lifetime, requiring that the newly established Nuclear Regulation Authority determine whether reactors can restart operations safely and forgoing additional construction of nuclear power plants.[12]

Yet, the Japanese government largely decided to continue its current nuclear fuel-cycle policy, including reprocessing projects. Behind this decision were strong pressures from the governments in the communities that house nuclear fuel-cycle facilities. Prior to the issuance of the strategy, Rokkasho’s village assembly called for removal of the spent fuel from the area if Tokyo abandoned its reprocessing plans. The statement was sent to ministers in charge of nuclear policy, the governor of Aomori, and the mayor of Rokkasho village.[13]

The Aomori prefectural government also has been considering refusing to accept highly radioactive waste scheduled to be returned from overseas and vitrified at the Rokkasho reprocessing facility for disposal if Tokyo turns away from reprocessing.[14] The decision to continue reprocessing reportedly was derived mainly from the pressures from Aomori prefecture and Rokkasho village. To mitigate the concerns of the Aomori prefectural government and its local communities, the strategy highlighted the central government’s intention to make progress toward identifying the final disposal sites in consultation with relevant local governments in order to avoid the indefinite storage of the spent fuel at the Rokkasho facility. It also included a commitment to move fuel from reactors to offsite storage facilities pending reprocessing or final disposition.

Another important factor in the Japanese government’s decision to continue reprocessing was the financial concerns of the troubled utilities that operate Japan’s nuclear plants. Due to Japan’s long-held policy of reprocessing 100 percent of its spent fuel, these utilities have considered spent fuel as an asset because it contains plutonium, which has been viewed as a useful energy resource. If the government abandons its reprocessing policy, however, these companies’ balance sheets will have to treat the spent fuel as a liability, possibly threatening some of them with bankruptcy unless the government provides them with financial compensation.

The strategy called for the government to continue discussions with the local communities that host the reprocessing facilities and with the international community. The strategy also included five priorities related to nuclear energy: (1) beginning research on direct disposal; (2) terminating operation of the Monju reactor, intended to be the first of many such reactors to burn plutonium fuel more efficiently, after a certain period of international cooperation on R&D of fast breeder reactors; (3) promoting R&D of spent fuel processing technology and advanced burner reactors to reduce the radioactivity of nuclear waste; (4) shifting responsibility from the private sector to the government for the disposition of spent fuel; and (5) launching a discussion forum to deal with issues related to direct disposal of nuclear spent fuel, including interim storage and final disposal sites.[15]

These issues have not been seriously discussed in Tokyo until now because they did not accord with Japan’s long-standing 100 percent reprocessing policy. The shift appears to be an effort to make Japan’s spent fuel management policy flexible and to mitigate concerns of reprocessing advocates and direct-disposal advocates.

New Strategy Questioned

The strategy document soon ran into strong opposition from the business sector, the communities where nuclear facilities are major employers, and the United States. The United States is not only Japan’s key security protector, but also its essential commercial partner in nuclear energy, given the marriages between General Electric and Hitachi and between Toshiba and Westinghouse. Moreover, based on the U.S.-Japanese nuclear cooperation agreement, Japan is the only NPT non-nuclear-weapon state that the United States has permitted to reprocess “U.S.-origin” fuel. In Japan’s case, this constitutes essentially all of its fuel because the term applies to any fuel irradiated in reactors with U.S. technology.[16]

After the release of the strategy document, U.S. officials expressed concern that continuing reprocessing while decreasing the use of nuclear energy would increase the quantity of separated plutonium, clashing with an important U.S. policy goal. Indeed, only a few months earlier, President Barack Obama, in a speech at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea, had stated that the “smallest amount of plutonium—about the size of an apple—could kill hundreds of thousands and spark a global crisis. We simply can’t go on accumulating huge amounts of the very material, like separated plutonium, that we’re trying to keep away from terrorists.”[17]

The U.S.-Japanese agreement, which entered into force in 1988, is due for renewal in 2018 and has a mechanism that will lead to renewal without further intervention by either party. The agreement stipulates, however, that either country could initiate consultations on amending the agreement or replacing it with a new agreement.[18] Given the U.S. concern over Japan’s potential accumulation of separated plutonium under the new strategy, it is conceivable that the United States may object to renewing the current blanket permission for spent fuel reprocessing.[19]

Two Japanese officials—Seiji Maehara, DPJ policy chief, and Akihisa Nagashima, special adviser to the prime minister for foreign and defense policy—briefed senior U.S. officials on the new nuclear energy policy shortly before it was announced. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman and other officials reportedly urged Japan to keep the amount of separated plutonium to a minimum.[20] The U.S. government expressed its concern that Japan’s new policy would undermine the basis of the current U.S.-Japanese cooperation agreement because the new policy implies that Japan continues to accumulate separated plutonium without consuming it.[21]

The United States requested that Japan be flexible in implementing the new energy strategy and not adopt the details specified in the new strategy as a cabinet decision.[22] Five days after the EEC issued this strategy, the cabinet issued a statement saying that the Japanese government will “tak[e] into account” the strategy document “while having discussions in a responsible manner with related local governments, the international community and others, and obtaining understanding of the Japanese public, by constantly reviewing and reexamining policies with flexibility.”[23] According to several media reports, U.S. pressure led Tokyo not to formalize the policy but instead leave it as a nonbinding measure.

No Market for MOX Fuel

Even without a phaseout, separated plutonium in Japan is accumulating faster than it is being used. With no short-term prospect for commercialization of a fast breeder reactor, permanent disposal and the pluthermal fuel cycle are the only ways to eliminate separated plutonium. Under Japan’s pre-Fukushima plans, a pluthermal cycle using MOX fuel would have consumed roughly six to nine metric tons of plutonium each year, requiring a period of at least five to seven years to dispose of the material once converted into MOX fuel. Yet, not only is Japan just beginning construction of a MOX fuel fabrication facility at Rokkasho, it has no operating reactors slated to burn the fuel.

Japan is backing away from the use of MOX fuel as a result of the temporary shutdown of nearly all of Japan’s nuclear power plants after the Fukushima accident and some particular safety concerns that arose after MOX fuel was used at unit 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. One worry is that because MOX fuel is more radioactive than low-enriched uranium fuel used in other reactors, an accident involving MOX fuel would be more severe.

By the end of 2010, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency had approved the use of MOX fuel in 11 reactors, including Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 and J-Power’s Oma reactor.[24] Oma, currently under construction, will be able to utilize a full MOX fuel core. To date, thermal reactors that have used MOX fuel have used it in only one-third of the core.

Since the Fukushima accident, most Japanese nuclear power plants have not been operating. In fact, units 3 and 4 of Kansai Electric Power Company’s Ohi nuclear power station are the only two power reactors currently operating in the country. Neither of these units is licensed to use MOX fuel. Both were restarted last July after passing government-run “stress tests” and amid massive protests against the restart and nuclear power. Between May and July, there were no nuclear power plants in operation in Japan.

Kansai’s Takahama Unit 3 had used MOX fuel before the earthquake, and Unit 4 was slated to use MOX fuel after its regular inspection in July 2011. Kansai decided to use conventional uranium for the Unit 4 once it is restarted.

Meanwhile, Hokkaido Electric Power Company, which had planned to use MOX fuel in Tomari Unit 3, one of the two plants that were shut down last, decided to suspend that plan. Among the plants that were scheduled to use MOX fuel, most are planning to use conventional uranium fuel when they restart, given concerns that use of MOX fuel would cause a further delay in winning approval from local governments to restart operations.

Moreover, one of the major companies promoting the utilization of MOX fuel was Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operated the Fukushima Daiichi plant and is now essentially bankrupt. Therefore, it is uncertain when the pluthermal cycle will restart. Furthermore, this July, the newly established Japanese regulatory authority is scheduled to issue its new safety standards, which will be tighter than the existing standards. Thus it is unlikely that any power companies will restart reactors before then even with conventional uranium fuel and even less likely with MOX fuel.

With no clear prospect of using MOX fuel, there is no justification to continue reprocessing spent fuel. This simply accumulates more separated plutonium, which clearly contradicts Japan’s stated policy of avoiding surplus plutonium.


A fair degree of uncertainty surrounds Japan’s future nuclear energy plans even after the recent parliamentary election. Nonetheless, it is clear that the scale of nuclear energy use will not support the fuel cycle policy that Japan had pursued for half a century. The new Japanese government should seize the opportunity to change the policy.

In particular, it makes little sense to plan to add to Japan’s massive stockpile of plutonium when there is no market for the MOX fuel that would be produced from that stockpile. Separating additional plutonium only contributes to suspicions in neighboring countries that the plant has more to do with Japanese nuclear weapons ambitions than Japanese fuel needs and thus encourages these countries to take matching steps (see box, page 25). The spread of reprocessing technology in the region will aggravate the already volatile security situation in East Asia and could lead to a proliferation chain reaction.

Japan’s neighbors and rivals already regard Japan as a virtual nuclear-weapon state. South Korea, which currently is negotiating a new nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, is insisting that Seoul should be granted the same right as Tokyo to reprocess its spent fuel. North Korea has openly declared its possession of nuclear weapons and carried out tests of nuclear explosives made with plutonium from reprocessed spent fuel.

In addition, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, at a joint press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone in 2009, called for Iran to implement the Japanese nuclear model.[25]

The new Japanese government should immediately announce a moratorium on operation of the Rokkasho reprocessing facility until it determines a long-term spent fuel policy. If the United Kingdom, as anticipated, joins France in planning to burn its separated plutonium in domestic reactors, Japan should seek to negotiate an agreement with those countries to have them burn Japanese plutonium holdings on their territory.[26] Indeed, a British governmental document supports this idea if Japan is willing to bear the cost.[27]

Domestically, Japan should either vitrify its current holdings of separated plutonium together with high-level waste or transmute separated plutonium into a more stable and safer form for direct disposal using new technology, possibly with a new type of burner reactor. The Monju reactor is likely to be shut down after a certain period of R&D, but if Tokyo pursues the option of using fast-neutron reactors to reduce radioactive waste by burning actinides for waste management, the Monju reactor might be turned into such a burner reactor.

After the end of the Cold War, the international community started paying more attention to a growing accumulation of plutonium originating from civilian and military nuclear programs. Since then, the Japanese government has tried to demonstrate that the country’s accumulated plutonium is strictly limited to peaceful purposes and that it is adhering to the principle of “no surplus plutonium.”[28] With the aim of enhancing transparency, in 1991 the JAEC decided to declare annually Japan’s plutonium stockpile by location.[29] Furthermore, in 2003, in order to strengthen the principle of avoiding growing plutonium surpluses, the JAEC issued a new guideline for plutonium management. Under that guideline, Japanese electric utilities are expected to publish a plutonium usage plan annually, before they separate plutonium from spent fuel.[30]

Nevertheless, the amount of plutonium continues to increase, generating serious concerns inside and outside the country. This proves that the principle of avoiding surplus plutonium is insufficient. Therefore, civil society and nongovernmental organizations have urged the government to take concrete initiatives to reduce the plutonium stockpile. The U.S.-Japan Nuclear Security Working Group, which was established in November 2010, could decide to address the issues related to excess plutonium in a practical way as the renewal date for the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement approaches.

A Japanese government decision to suspend reprocessing would have benefits far beyond the country’s shores. One effect would be on nuclear security. As Obama’s remarks in South Korea made clear, stockpiles of separated plutonium provide an all-too-attractive target for terrorists.

Furthermore, ending the program would contribute to global and regional stability. Several other countries, such as Iran and South Korea, are considering their own reprocessing plans and routinely point to Japan’s program and U.S. acceptance of it as justification for their own efforts. A Japanese decision to forgo reprocessing would deprive those countries of a major argument for developing their nuclear fuel cycles, including reprocessing capabilities, and may substantively affect their decisions on that issue. With tensions soaring between Japan and neighbors such as China, Tokyo’s excess plutonium and advanced nuclear fuel-cycle capability provide a latent nuclear weapons capability that further destabilizes the region’s volatile security environment.

It is past time for Japan to end a costly, wasteful, and counterproductive nuclear fuel-cycle policy that undermines global and regional security.



Masako Toki is a research associate and project manager of the Nonproliferation Education Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Miles Pomper is a senior research associate at the center.




1. The term “pluthermal” refers to the use of plutonium in typical commercial light-water reactors, which fission slower, “thermal” neutrons rather than the fast neutrons fissioned by fast reactors.

2. Japan’s Framework for Nuclear Energy Policy, adopted in October 2005 by the Cabinet, reiterated its commitment to further promoting the nuclear fuel cycle. It also highlighted Japan’s goal of commercializing practical fast-breeder-reactor fuel cycles. See http://www.aec.go.jp/jicst/NC/tyoki/taikou/kettei/eng_ver.pdf.

3. International Panel on Fissile Materials, “Japan’s 2011 Civilian Plutonium Declaration,” October 3, 2012, http://fissilematerials.org/blog/2012/10/japans_2011_civilian_plut.html.

4. “Rokkasho N-Fuel Plant Completion Delayed,” Jiji Press, September 20, 2012, http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/T120919004612.htm.

5. The Energy and Environment Council (EEC), which was established to provide recommendations on Japan’s energy future, is part of the National Policy Unit (NPU), a command center created by the DPJ government when it took power in 2009. The NPU, which is directly under the prime minister, coordinates interagency policy and seeks to maintain political control over Japan’s powerful bureaucracy. For more information on the NPU and EEC, see http://www.npu.go.jp/en/whatnpu/.

6. Japanese EEC, “Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment,” September 14, 2012, http://www.npu.go.jp/en/policy/policy06/pdf/20121004/121004_en2.pdf.

7. The timetable was extended by a decade in the final version of the document.

8. “Enerugii Kankyou no Sentakushi ni Kansuru Kokumintekigiron no susumekatani tsuite (dainihou)” [On How to Conduct National Debates Regarding Options of Energy and Environment, Version 2], Enerugii Kankyou Kaigi Jimukyoku [Energy and Environment Council Secretariat], August 20, 2012, http://www.npu.go.jp/policy/policy09/pdf/20120820/20120820.pdf.

9. Japanese NPU, “Options for Energy and the Environment: The Energy and Environment Council Decision,” June 29, 2012, http://www.npu.go.jp/policy/policy09/pdf/20120720/20120720_en.pdf.

10. “Gov’t Energy Council Sets 3 Options for Energy and Anti-Global Warming Policy,” The Mainichi, June 30, 2012.

11. Kokka Senryaku Tantou Daijin, “Senryaku Sakutei ni Mukete- Kokuminteki Giron ga Sashishimesumono” [Minister of State for National Policy, Toward Establishment of the New Strategy: What National Debates Indicate], September 4, 2012, http://www.npu.go.jp/policy/policy09/pdf/20120904/shiryo1-1.pdf.

12. Japanese EEC, “Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment.” With regard to the ban on reactor construction, the DPJ made an exemption to allow construction to restart on three reactors that were being built when the Fukushima accident occurred: J-Power’s Oma reactor in Aomori prefecture, Chugoku Electric Power Company’s Shimane Nuclear Power Plant Unit 3, and Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Higashidori Nuclear Power Plant Unit 1 in Aomori.

13. Rokkasho Village Assembly, “Statement of Position for Maintaining Firmly of Reprocessing Route of Spent Fuel,” September 7, 2012, http://www.rokkasho.jp.e.av.hp.transer.com/index.cfm/11,491,32,134,html.

14. Vitrification involves mixing plutonium or nuclear waste with sand or other material to make a glass-like form. In this state, the nuclear waste or plutonium is immobilized and not likely to harm the enviornment or public health. “Japan to Allow N-Reactor Construction in Progress to Continue,” Jiji Press, September 15, 2012.

15. Japanese EEC, “Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment.”

16. Paul K. Kerr and Mary Beth Nikitin, “Nuclear Cooperation With Other Countries: A Primer,” CRS Report for Congress, RS22937, June 19, 2012.

17. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Obama at Hankuk University,” March 26, 2012.

18. “Agreement for Cooperation Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Japan Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy,” November 4, 1987, http://nnsa.energy.gov/sites/default/files/nnsa/inlinefiles/Japan_123.pdf.

19. Tetsuya Endo, “Mankiga Chikazuku Nichibei Genshiryokukyoutei no Kongo” [The Future of the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Agreement of Which the Renewal Date Approaches], Japan Institute of International Affairs, September 19, 2012, http://www.jiia.or.jp/column/201209/19-endo.html.

20. “U.S. Urges Japan to Keep Plutonium Minimum on Proliferation Fears,” Japan Economic Newswire, October 3, 2012.

21. “Tamaru Pu Saishori Yuragu” [Reprocessing Policy Wavers Due to Accumulating Plutonium], Yomiuri Online, http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/e-japan/aomori/feature/aomori1349793384574_02/news/20121011-OYT8T01682.htm.

22. Ibid.

23. “Future Policies for Energy and the Environment Cabinet Decision,” September 19, 2012, http://www.npu.go.jp/en/policy/policy06/pdf/20121004/121004_en1.pdf.

24. The following 11 reactors have been licensed to use MOX fuel as part of the pluthermal program: Tomari-3, Onagawa-3, Fukushima I-3, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa-3, Hamaoka-3, Takahama-3 and 4, Shimane-2, Ikata-3, Genkai-3, and Oma.

25. A. Savyon and Y. Mansharof, “The Japanese Nuclear Model Applies to Us Too,” Iran Almanac, May 5, 2009, http://www.iranalmanac.com/news/lastnews.php?newsid=10327&date=2009-05-08.

26. With the aim of developing a constructive proposal on spent fuel management, like-minded members of the DPJ established a study group. The group’s first recommendation, in February 2012, was to defer indefinitely the Rokkasho plant’s startup. For more information on the proposal, see http://nuclear-backend.jp/teigen/120207teigen.pdf. Apart from that, the secretary of the study group, Toshiro Ishii, proposed that 17 metric tons of plutonium extracted by the United Kingdom from Japanese spent fuel and stored in the United Kingdom be sold to or accepted by that country. He pointed to a December 2011 British policy document that called for eliminating that country’s separated civilian stocks by burning MOX fuel in civilian reactors and said that the British government concluded that overseas owners of plutonium stored in the United Kingdom “could, subject to commercial terms that are acceptable” to the British government, “have their plutonium managed in line with this policy.” See UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), “Management of the UK’s Plutonium Stocks,” December 1, 2011, http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/Consultations/plutonium-stocks/3694-govt-resp-mgmt-of-uk-plutonium-stocks.pdf.

27. UK DECC, “Management of the UK’s Plutonium Stock.”

28. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Communication Received From Certain Member States Concerning Their Policies Regarding the Management of Plutonium,” INFCIRC/549/Add. 1, March 31, 1998.

29. Tadahiro Katsuta and Tatsujiro Suzuki, “Japan’s Spent Fuel and Plutonium Management Challenges,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, September 2006, http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr02.pdf.

30. Tatsujiro Suzuki, “Current and Future Prospects of Japan’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policies: Issues and Challenges” (presentation at the Royal Society workshop titled “Building Proliferation Resistance Into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” London, June 10-11, 2010), http://www.aec.go.jp/jicst/NC/about/kettei/100610.pdf.