“Your association has taken a significant role in fostering public awareness of nuclear disarmament and has led to its advancement.”
– Kazi Matsui
Mayor of Hiroshima
June 2, 2022

Japan Presses Egypt on the CTBT

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi for an official visit to Japan from Feb. 29-March 2. According to a joint statement issued Feb. 29, they discussed a range of bilateral and international issues, including nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament and the CTBT. On these issues, the statement says: “Both leaders determined to cooperate for realization of a peaceful and secure world free of nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Abe expressed the importance of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and President El-Sisi took note. They underlined...

Looking Back: Gen. Marshall and the Atomic Bombing of Japanese Cities

November 2015

By Barton J. Bernstein

The U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima with a uranium weapon and Nagasaki with a plutonium weapon in August 1945 caused the deaths of more than 100,000 Japanese, mostly noncombatants, by the end of that year and injured about the same number. Those bombings also killed thousands of Korean noncombatants and some Allied prisoners of war.

Much has been written over the years about the bombings. That literature includes considerable discussion of the process that led to President Harry Truman’s decision to use the two bombs and to target enemy cities, the resulting killing of massive numbers of noncombatants, and the debate over the necessity and ethics of conducting two bombings rather than one or even none.

The still-controversial history of the bombings involves disputes in areas such as sources, the uses of evidence, the standards for assessing and interpreting decision-making, and the basis for defining and evaluating morality and ethics in the context of war.

A key source in this contested history has been the evidence of individuals who were involved in the U.S. government’s development of and decision-making on nuclear weapons. Yet, many of these individuals, be they supporters or critics, somewhat rewrote their history in the aftermath of the August 1945 bombings.

Untangling postwar contentions from actual pre-Hiroshima actions is generally not a simple matter. It requires close attention to pre-Hiroshima archival sources, which account for well more than 100,000 pages in multiple libraries. In using these sources, the analyst should give much greater weight to the pre-Hiroshima sources than to the later, postwar claims in cases of significant discrepancies.

After the war, in memoirs and in related statements, three former wartime members of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff—Admiral William Leahy, the de facto chairman of the Joint Chiefs; General Henry Arnold, head of the Army Air Forces, and Admiral Ernest King, head of the Navy—publicly raised sharp questions about the military-political necessity of those atomic bombings and indicated there were other ways of ending the war. In his own widely reviewed memoir I Was There,1 Leahy passionately condemned the bombings as unethical and even barbarous. Yet, the available records, including his own diary, give no indication that he expressed this opinion to Truman or to any other government associate before the bombings.

Marshall as the Exception

Admiral Ernest King (left), Admiral William Leahy (center), and General George Marshall arrive at the White House for a wartime conference with President Franklin Roosevelt on July 29, 1942. [Photo credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]Of the four retired wartime military chiefs, only General George Marshall, the wartime Army chief of staff, never in public or in any documented private statements in the postwar period joined in such criticisms or even in hints of having ever entertained such doubts about the 1945 use of nuclear weapons. In various interviews and related statements, Marshall strongly defended the atomic bombings of Japanese cities as militarily and politically necessary and as ethically justifiable.

Nevertheless, Marshall was the only one of those four top-level men who, before the atomic bombings, actively sought to avoid the use of the new weapons on Japanese cities or to provide an adequate warning to Japan so that noncombatants could safely flee the cities. Fiercely loyal to Truman, unwilling to write a memoir, and wary of political controversy, Marshall in the aftermath of the war never revealed or even hinted that he had been a partial dissenter before the bombings, nor did other high-level memoirists ever disclose such information about Marshall’s pre-Hiroshima thinking.

On May 29, 1945, however, about seven weeks before the Trinity test on July 16 in New Mexico and about 10 weeks before the August 6 bombing of Hiroshima, the 64-year-old Marshall argued generally for not using the weapon on Japanese cities but on a “straight military [target] such as a naval installation,” in the words of the meeting minutes.2 If a city was chosen, it should be a “large manufacturing” area, he urged, and the United States should at least provide a substantial warning about the weapon in order to spare noncombatant lives.

For him, the definition of noncombatants included workers, as well as their families. That conception apparently did not change for Marshall in his thinking about the manufacturing that might contribute directly to Japan’s war effort.

Marshall presented his ethically influenced analysis in a secret meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, both Republicans in a Democratic administration.

Stimson was serving in his fourth presidential cabinet; his previous posts included secretary of war under President William Taft and then secretary of state under President Herbert Hoover. As part of what was designed as a bipartisan national security system, Stimson had rejoined the government as President Franklin Roosevelt’s war secretary about 18 months before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

By late May 1945, the 77-year-old Stimson and the 50-year-old McCloy had been working comfortably with Marshall for about five years. It was a close relationship of mutual trust and sincere respect. Their policy differences, when they occurred, were hammered out in private. During the war years, the three men easily maintained such discretion and energetically practiced secrecy. Such behavior flowed from their temperament and the context.

Marshall (left), UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill (center), and U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson meet at Fort Jackson in Louisiana on June 7, 1942. [Photo credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]Marshall, McCloy, and Stimson sought to avoid or minimize open controversy about how to conduct the war, including the uses of weaponry. These men did not want fractious publicity about policy decisions, and they sought to limit considerations of the politics of war to high-level, often secret decision-making. That was part of the intended political strategy of creating and maintaining national consensus on many war-related matters.

The three men were generally aided in such arrangements by the Senate’s special investigating committee. Initiated early in the war under then-Senator Truman (D-Mo.), the panel had helped insulate the government’s policymaking on defense issues from public scrutiny. When Truman, elected vice president in 1944, became president in April 1945, that Senate committee, maintaining its ways from the Roosevelt period, continued to help protect the chief executive and his bipartisan national security system from intrusive scrutiny on the conduct of the war.

On the subject of the atomic bomb, only a few congressional leaders drawn from each political party even knew of the top-secret project. The funding, about $1.8 billion by mid-1945, was tucked into appropriations bills without the bulk of senators or representatives knowing about it or about the Manhattan Project itself and the weapons it was designed to build.

The May 29 Meeting

At the May 29 meeting, much of the discussion among Marshall, McCloy, and Stimson focused on military policies to help end the Asian war and the use of significant weapons—atomic bombs and toxic gas—against Japan in future months. Breaking ranks with the other two officials, Marshall hoped to use gas, thereby violating Roosevelt’s public pledge of no first use of a “poisonous or noxious” gas,3 but McCloy and Stimson showed no interest in endorsing such a radical departure from established policy. By their response, they seemed uneasy about such a proposal.

With a nuclear bomb likely to be ready and to be used in about early August 1945, the three men talked about that weapon. Still untested at the time of the meeting, it was expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than even the largest conventional bombs. The uranium bomb was predicted, as of late April 1945, to produce the equivalent of about 8,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT power, and the plutonium weapon about 4,000 to 6,000 tons.4 Regardless of which kind of atomic weapon was used, it clearly would cause massive destruction on any target area by blast and heat, as all three men easily recognized.

At the time of the meeting, none of the three men apparently knew anything of significance, and quite likely they understood nothing at all about nuclear radiation and its great perils for humans: death or agonizing injury and even impairments in the gene pool for future generations. None of the three men actually knew anything in depth about the science and technology of the new uranium and plutonium bombs.

The issue that troubled Marshall, as he made clear to Stimson and McCloy at their meeting, was that these new, massively powerful bombs, if used on a city, would kill many noncombatants. To Marshall, that type of killing apparently constituted a dangerous and dramatic crossing of an important moral and ethical threshold by slaying innocent men, women, and children.

In public statements in the 1930s, Roosevelt had emphasized the moral and ethical line that would be crossed by bombing noncombatants. For Marshall, who had entered the Army more than a decade before World War I, and for Stimson and McCloy, such a line had at one time seemed deeply embedded in the informal U.S. code of conducting warfare.

By late May 1945, however, Marshall and his two colleagues at the meeting knew that U.S. conduct of so-called conventional warfare, especially with B-17 bombers and then the new B-29 bombers, had crossed that threshold with bombs, including incendiaries, against German and Japanese cities. U.S. and UK aircraft massively fire-bombed the German city of Dresden in February 1945, killing about 35,000 to 45,000. The U.S. fire-bombing of Tokyo in March killed about 80,000. The Tokyo count, with about 16 square miles burned out, was the highest by any bombing raid through late May 1945. In both enemy cities, the dead and injured, as all three U.S. officials knew, had been mostly noncombatants.

Whether and how such bombings would speed the ending of the wars in Europe and Asia was often rather vague. Among many U.S. government officials, there was a general sense that such bombings would help erode morale in the two enemy states and in multiple ways, often loosely defined, contribute to pushing the two enemy governments toward surrender.

Those attacks had greatly upset Stimson. He had worried on ethical grounds about the killing of noncombatants in such attacks, and he wished that such killing could be avoided or minimized by “precision” bombing.5 Before, during, and after the May 29 meeting, Marshall apparently never expressed, even in secret, governmental inner circles, such worries or doubts about massive conventional bombing of enemy cities.

As the head of the Army, Marshall had the moral authority, had he wished to use it, to complain inside the government and to urge different bombing policies. He never had done so or even come close to doing so.

Yet, even in prospect, the atomic bomb in May 1945 seemed markedly different to him, raising unsettling ethical and moral issues. Apparently troubled by the thought of targeting a city with that weapon, Marshall feared that moral opprobrium might be heaped on the United States in the aftermath. Thus, he offered a proposal for alternatives—bombing a military installation or bombing a large manufacturing area with a prior warning—by which he hoped to protect the United States and its new president from moral and ethical accusations of acting improperly.

A Likely Missed Opportunity

Marshall’s pleas on May 29 did not seem to gain support from Stimson or McCloy. Two days later, Stimson helped shape the nuclear targeting policy by outlining with a secret blue-ribbon panel, the Interim Committee, that the weapon should be used without any warning to Japan and on a military-industrial target surrounded by workers’ houses.6

As Stimson and the other meeting participants, including Marshall, well understood, enemy workers were usually defined as noncombatants. Furthermore, even if there might be some ambiguity about categorizing workers, there was none regarding their children, nonworking wives, and elderly relatives. Thus, many thousands of enemy innocents could be expected to be slain or injured by the atomic bomb.

Having been quietly defeated in the small meeting on May 29, Marshall raised no objections about that targeting and no-warning policy on May 31 in the larger meeting, which included James Conant, president of Harvard University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Karl Compton. Marshall also did not do so in the next 10 weeks in various discussions with Stimson, McCloy, or Truman as the United States moved to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Marshall quite likely missed an opportunity to establish an alliance with the president on redefining the targeting. Marshall did not know that Truman, around the time in late July 1945 that he endorsed the military order to use nuclear weapons on Japanese cities, had chosen to believe that the bombs’ targets would be truly of a military nature. In what was most likely self-deception, Truman wrote in his diary on July 25 that he had instructed Stimson that the new bomb should be used “so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children.” The target, Truman falsely contended, would be “purely military.”

Truman wrote of the Japanese being “savages,” calling them “merciless and fanatic.” The United States, he claimed, was markedly different in its conduct of the war and its concern for noncombatants.

Marshall apparently never said to anyone that he had regretted not seeking before the Hiroshima bombing to make common cause with Truman on the targeting policy. Had Marshall risked going outside the chain of command and bypassing Stimson, the general might well have been successful in July 1945 and thereby have helped to redefine the targeting policy for the atomic bomb to avoid killing and injuring noncombatants. Whether Marshall ever regretted not approaching Truman on this matter is uncertain.

Marshall’s Reshaped History

After the war, Marshall apparently never disclosed, even to his official biographer, historian Forrest Pogue, that, at the May 29 meeting with Stimson and McCloy, he had sought to alter the course of nuclear history as it was then unfolding.

McCloy’s minutes of the May 29 meeting, the only available record of Marshall’s secret counsel there, were not declassified until about two decades after the general’s October 1959 death. Dismayingly, that documentary record has generally been of little or no interest to most historians studying nuclear weapons or Marshall.

While concealing his May 1945 effort, Marshall himself, in an interview with Pogue in February 1957, somewhat rewrote the pre-Hiroshima history on the atomic bomb. Marshall contended incorrectly that the Truman administration, before the first atomic bombing of Japan, had provided the Japanese with a vague warning of the planned use by the United States of that new weapon on Japan.

Although the United States had issued broad warnings about large-scale destruction, it never gave Japan an explicit warning about the atomic bomb in the run-up to the Hiroshima bombing. One wonders—admittedly, in the absence of evidence—whether Marshall’s flawed recollection, as captured by Pogue, was an expression of the general’s unacknowledged personal regret. It might also have been an effort to protect his president, government, and country.

At the May 29 meeting, Marshall had unsuccessfully sought to reshape the future, and in 1957, he sought to reshape the past. He largely failed in those two efforts. By remaining silent about his advice of May 29, he helped obscure the possibility of a different history of nuclear weapons.

Stimson never mentioned Marshall’s May 29 advice in his memoir and in an article that drew on it. McCloy did not either in his many postwar commentaries, even though they often were critical of the atomic bombings. Truman, in his ghost-written memoir and elsewhere, never mentioned and probably never knew of Marshall’s urgings on the targeting of nuclear weapons.

Different Targeting?

The effect on Hiroshima of the atomic bombing on August 6, 1945, is shown in a photo from that day. The building on the right was preserved as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. [Photo credit: Keystone/Getty Images]If the United States had issued a substantial, explicit warning to Japan before using the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; if the U.S. attacks truly had targeted manufacturing areas; or, more significantly, if the targets in Japan had been actually a military installation, the postwar dialogue about the bombings might have been different.

To consider the plausible alternative history in which the United States chose a military target and therefore avoided the deaths of massive numbers of noncombatants is not to seek to justify the atomic bombings. It is intended to force a rethinking of important aspects of the August 1945 bombings and of the moral and ethical underpinnings of those bombings.

Whatever their use, the bombs dropped in August 1945 would have crossed a profoundly important and greatly troubling threshold. They represented exceptional power delivered by a new technology. If they had been used against an enemy military installation with comparatively few deaths and injuries to enemy noncombatants, the important moral and ethical threshold of killing massive numbers of noncombatants, despite the earlier attacks on Dresden and Tokyo and the similar conventional bombings elsewhere, would not have been crossed in the atomic bombings of Japan.

Part of the older moral and ethical code would have been respected in what nevertheless was a brutal, savage war. Fought broadly across three continents and numerous islands, that long war killed many millions of noncombatants among the total of about 55 million people.

By most estimates, noncombatant deaths, including those in German death camps and those from starvation, malnutrition, and disease elsewhere, significantly outnumbered the ones among soldiers from bombing and ground warfare.

The two atomic bombs probably added at least 100,000 to the tally of noncombatants but only about 12,000 to the number of military men killed.

Analysts might contend that limiting the use of the new, devastating weapon to military targets might have made it seem less terrible and thus less effective as a psychological weapon. In a similar vein, the analysts might argue that the large number of deaths and the high percentage that were noncombatants created its own firewall in making future use by any country morally more difficult.

To discuss such matters involving the dead and who was killed or might otherwise have been killed under a different targeting plan may seem ghoulish and cold blooded. In fact, these matters, which involve ethical considerations, are important in critically examining how the atomic bomb has been understood and why.

Marshall’s proposals add an important element to the debate over these matters. His proposals make clear that policies on atomic bomb targeting that were different from the ones actually used were not simply hypothetical possibilities but truly plausible alternatives in 1945. For arms control analysts and others who wish to think critically about such alternatives, the generally neglected document on Marshall’s meeting of May 29, 1945, provides firm evidence that an important member of the U.S. government recommended seeking to use the atomic bomb in a way that would not kill massive numbers of noncombatants.

Barton J. Bernstein is a professor emeritus of history at Stanford University and has long written and lectured on the decision to use the atomic bomb and other aspects of the history of nuclear weapons.


1.  William D. Leahy, I Was There: The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time (New York: Whittlesey House, 1950), pp. 440-441.

2.  John J. McCloy, “Objectives Toward Japan and Methods of Concluding War With Minimum Casualties,” May 29, 1945, in Marshall Papers, George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, VA (memorandum of conversation with General George Marshall with handwritten note by McCloy or Marshall stating “C/S [Marshall] has noted and has no further suggestions”).

3.  Statement of President Franklin Roosevelt on June 8, 1943, in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vol. 1943, ed. Samuel Rosenman (New York: Harper, 1950), p. 242.

4.  For the formal estimates in the spring of 1945 of TNT equivalence for the two types of atomic bombs, see Gen. Leslie Groves to Secretary of War, “Atomic Fission Bombs,” April 23, 1945, pp. 5-6, in Top Secret of Special Interest to Groves Files, #25, Manhattan Engineer District (MED) Records, RG 77, U.S. National Archives.

5.  Henry Stimson diary, June 1 and 6, 1945, Sterling Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT. The subject has also been thoughtfully treated by various interpreters. See McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988); Sean Malloy, Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

6.  For the Interim Committee minutes of May 31, 1945, see Harrison-Bundy Files, #100, MED Records, RG 77. For President Harry Truman’s Potsdam diary of July 25, 1945, see Truman Papers, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MO. For Marshall’s interview with Pogue of February 11, 1957, see Larry and Joellen Bland, eds., George C. Marshall Interviews and Reminiscences for Forrest C. Pogue, rev. ed. (Lexington, VA: George C. Marshall Research Foundation, 1991), pp. 422-425.

In a May 1945 meeting, General George Marshall sought to avoid using atomic bombs on Japanese cities or to warn Japan so that noncombatants could safely flee the cities. 

Japanese Prime Minister and Kazakh President Sign Joint Statement

On Oct. 27, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed and adopted a joint statement in support of the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Japan and Kazakhstan were selected to be the Co-Chairs of the 2015 Article XIV Conference on facilitating the entry into force of the CTBT and to lead the international efforts to implement the CTBT for the following two years. A PDF of the full statement is available here , in Japanese, English, and Russian. The press statement by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization is...

Statement by Daryl G. Kimball to the 25th UN Conference on Disarmament Issues, Hiroshima, Japan



Addressing the Disarmament Deficit
Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director 

25th United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues, Hiroshima, Japan
August 27, 2015

In the seven decades since the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have become less and less relevant to the security of possessor states and their allies and the potential harm of their further use has become even more harmful to international security and human survival.

Yet the threat of nuclear war remains. As President Obama said in June 2013 in Berlin: “ … so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe.”

And thanks to the moving and inspiring testimonials of the hibakusha many of us have heard this week, we are better able to understand why the use of nuclear weapons is inhumane and unacceptable under any circumstances. 

To ensure the NPT and the broader global nuclear disarmament enterprise remains dynamic and effective, all states-parties must provide leadership and take action to fulfill the treaty’s lofty goals and aspirations.

Unfortunately, rather than help to advance the disarmament cause, the 2015 NPT review conference exposed the imperfections of the NPT and the divisions among key parties.

In addition, to the division on the Middle East Zone conference, the states-parties failed to produce an updated, meaningful action plan on disarmament that builds on the commitments they made at the 2010 review conference.

Although the recent downturn in U.S.-Russian relations and growing U.S.-Chinese tensions have made progress difficult, this does not excuse the NPT nuclear weapon states from their NPT Article VI disarmament commitments.

Without further U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions, until at least 2021, the United States and Russia will deploy more than 1,500 strategic warheads on several hundred bombers and missiles—far more than necessary to deter nuclear attack. If these weapons were used even in a “limited” way, the result would be catastrophic nuclear devastation. 

Making matters worse, the United States and Russia are both modernizing their Cold War nuclear inventories, which will cost of several hundred billion dollars over the next ten years.

Other nuclear arms states—China, India, and Pakistan in particular—are all pursuing new ballistic missile, cruise missile, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems. Pakistan has dangerously lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use by developing tactical nuclear weapons capabilities to counter perceived Indian conventional military threats. 

And North Korea continues its nuclear pursuits in violation of its earlier denuclearization pledges and the NPT and may conduct yet another nuclear weapon test explosion. 

While they agreed to draft conference language outlining some useful new disarmament concepts, the nuclear weapon states did not come to the conference with significant new proposals for progress on disarmament, and they successfully brushed aside calls for new benchmarks and timelines on previous commitments.

In response, 114 governments joined an Austrian-led initiative known as the “Humanitarian Pledge,” which calls on states "to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons."   

Some states and civil society campaigners interpret this to mean that negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons possession and use should begin.

A ban is a necessary step toward a world without nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, will not, by itself, change dangerous nuclear doctrines or eliminate nuclear arsenals of the world’s nuclear-armed states. It is not a panacea for the hard work and bold leadership necessary to change the status quo. 

Thus, additional creative initiatives, new ideas, and bolder leadership are required to move forward.

And, as Amb. Kellerman of South Africa has reminded us, given that the next NPT Review Conference is five years away, given that the Conference on Disarmament is dysfunctional, a new and meaningful forum to develop and launch effective disarmament measures is required.

The following concepts and initiatives may help catalyze meaningful action:

1. Convene nuclear disarmament summits. As Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz argued in an op-ed in 2013, a new multilateral effort for nuclear disarmament dialogue is needed.

In 2009, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested that the UN Security Council convene a summit on nuclear disarmament.

I welcome Amb. Kang of the United States expressing support for the concept in the 2015 NPT draft conference document regarding an “open-ended working group” to “elaborate effective measures for the full implementation of Article VI of the treaty.” The working group could allow for the continuation of the discussions at the NPT Review Conference on disarmament and the introduction of practical new proposals for breaking the current deadlock.

Another, more impactful approach would be for a group of concerned states to organize a high-level conference involving the leaders of a representative group of 20-30 nuclear and nonnuclear armed states to a two- to three-day summit on the pursuit of a joint enterprise to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.

The first such high-level meeting could be held in Hiroshima or elsewhere in Japan in 2016 on the margins of the G-7 Summit. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has opened the door to such a gathering with his very important invitation for other world leaders to visit Hiroshima at that time.

This could be an historic, new, and productive starting point to rejuvenate the nuclear disarmament effort. To bring all key states together is should be based on two principles: 1) a clear understanding of the humanitarian impact of the use of nuclear weapons; and 2) an objective assessment of the security concerns of states, including the threats posed by a range of nuclear risks.

All participants should be encouraged to bring “house gifts”—specific actions by states that would concretely reduce the threat of nuclear weapons use, freeze or reduce numbers of nuclear weapons, reduce the role of nuclear weapons, or make their nuclear programs more transparent.

For instance, the United States and Russia could jointly announce they will resume negotiations on a follow-on to the New START agreement, and/or one or more CTBT Annex II states could announce they have taken concrete steps to sign or ratify the treaty.

Such a summit could provide much-needed new momentum on disarmament.

2. Accelerate U.S.-Russian nuclear cuts and freeze other nuclear-armed nation stockpiles. Further nuclear reductions need not wait for a new U.S.-Russian arms control treaty. The United States and Russia could accelerate the pace of reductions under New START to reach the agreed limits before the 2018 deadline. As long as both sides continue to reduce force levels below the treaty limits, U.S. and Russian leaders could undertake parallel, verifiable reductions well below New START ceilings.

Other countries must get off the disarmament sidelines, particularly China, France, India and Pakistan, which continue to improve their nuclear capabilities. These states are all pursuing new ballistic missile, cruise missile, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems. In addition, Pakistan has dangerously lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use by developing tactical nuclear weapons capabilities to counter perceived Indian conventional military threats.

To start, the world’s other nuclear-armed states should pledge not to increase the overall size of their stockpiles as long as U.S. and Russian reductions continue.  

A unified push for further U.S.-Russian arms cuts, combined with a global nuclear weapons freeze by the other nuclear-armed states, could create the conditions for multilateral action on disarmament.

3. Follow through on the CTBT. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the negotiation and the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In the interest of global security and out of respect for the victims and survivors of nuclear testing, it is past time to bring the treaty into force.                 

Despite statements of support for the CTBT from China and the United States, neither state has taken sufficient action to ratify the treaty. Stronger leadership from Washington and Beijing is overdue and necessary. 

Other states must do their part too. Ratification by Egypt, Iran, and Israel—three other key CTBT holdouts—would also reduce nuclear weapons-related security concerns in the Middle East and help create the conditions necessary for the realization of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction—or in the very least, a nuclear weapons test free zone.

As Amb. Badr of Egypt eloquently noted, we must respect the wishes of the hibakusha, and it is clear that one of their wishes is the CTBT. And, I agree with him that states cannot pick and choose which NPT commitments they decide to meet and which ones they do not. And so, I would like to invite Amb. Badr to explain whether Egypt still supports the CTBT and explain when Egypt plans to join the treaty.

Neither India nor Pakistan say they want to resume testing, yet their governments have failed to take a serious look at joining the CTBT, which, despite their protestations, is a non-discriminatory measure that would help reduce nuclear tensions throughout Asia.

Even if action by these states toward ratification begins soon, the entry into force of the CTBT is many years away, and it is vital that the international community seek ways to reinforce the global taboo against nuclear testing pending CTBT entry into force. 

To do so, it would be wise for the members of the UN Security Council to consider the adoption of a resolution next year that determines that nuclear testing by any state is a threat to international peace and security. Or the key nuclear testing states could issue a joint statement underscoring their commitment to the CTBT and the test moratorium.


None of these options is easy or simple, but without fresh thinking and renewed action on the 70-year old problem of nuclear weapons, the risk of the further use of nuclear weapons use will grow.


In the seven decades since the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have become ...

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Japan and Kazakhstan to Co-Chair Next Article XIV Conference

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Erland Idrissov will lead the next Article XIV Conference to take place September 29, 2015 in New York. Japan and Kazakhstan were unanimously nominated at a meeting of member states to lead the international efforts to implement the CTBT for a period of two years, beginning with the September Article XIV Conference. Article XIV of the CTBT stipulates that if the CTBT has not entered into force three years after the date of the anniversary of its opening for signature (1996), member states may request to hold a conference...

IAEA Custody of Japanese Plutonium Stocks: Strengthening Confidence and Transparency

Fred McGoldrick

Even before the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster shut down all 48 Japanese nuclear reactors, Japan’s plan to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel and use the recovered plutonium and uranium as mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in its nuclear power plants suffered from significant delays.

The country now has a stockpile of some 44 metric tons of plutonium, with more than nine metric tons in Japan and about 35 metric tons in Europe that must eventually be returned to Japan.[1] With formidable challenges precluding any quick or easy route for using or disposing of this material, Japan has a major plutonium problem on its hands.

This problem not only has produced a national test for managing Japan’s plutonium, but also has intensified apprehensions by neighboring states about Japan’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Nonproliferation analysts have expressed concerns that such a stockpile sets a poor example for the global nonproliferation regime and increases the risks of nuclear theft. Reducing or eliminating this stockpile will be daunting and take many years to accomplish, but Japan could alleviate international apprehensions and strengthen the global nonproliferation regime by placing its excess plutonium under the custody of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).


Obstacles to the Abe Policy

On April 11, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the latest Basic Energy Plan, which calls for the restart of nuclear power plants that satisfy rigorous post-Fukushima regulatory standards, the start-up of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, and the use of MOX fuel in Japanese reactors. The plan stated that the Japanese government “remains committed to the policy of not possessing reserves of plutonium of which use is undetermined on the premise of peaceful use of plutonium. In order to achieve this policy effectively, the government will conduct an appropriate management and utilization of plutonium while paying due consideration to an appropriate balance between separation and utilization of plutonium.”[2] The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) announced that Japanese utilities would clarify a plutonium-utilization plan before plutonium would be recovered at the Rokkasho plant.[3] Yet, it will be challenging to run the plant and reduce or at least not increase Japan’s plutonium stockpiles.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has been reviewing 18 reactors to determine whether they meet the new post-Fukushima safety regulations. On July 15, the NRA declared that two reactors meet the new safety standards, and the local community has appeared to favor a restart. According to estimates in the Japanese media, the entire process should conclude around October.[4] Even if the NRA determines that reactors meet the new safety standards, however, the Japanese utility operators have agreed to consult with local jurisdictions before they make a final decision on resuming operation of any reactor. Nevertheless, the federal government has been clear that it alone has the final say on whether nuclear power plants operate.[5] Recent polls reveal that opponents of restarting the nuclear program outnumber supporters by about two to one.[6]

Some local governments support nuclear power because it brings jobs and government subsidies to their communities. Other localities are strongly opposed.[7] Thus, any plans to restart reactors could be undermined by local opposition. One city has sought a court injunction to prevent a nuclear plant from being built.[8] Adding to the uncertainty was a ruling in May by a Japanese court against restarting reactors 3 and 4 at the Ohi nuclear plant in Fukui prefecture.[9]

A Reuters analysis concluded that only one-third of the 48 idled reactors are likely to pass Japan’s new, more stringent safety standards and meet the seismological, economic, logistical, and political hurdles needed for restart.[10] In addition, the reactor restarts are facing significant implementation costs ranging from $700 million to $1 billion per unit. A March estimate put the cost at $12.3 billion.[11]

The Japanese plan to burn the plutonium as fuel is further complicated by the government’s decision to halt the Monju prototype fast-neutron breeder reactor project, which was to play a central role in utilizing Japanese plutonium.[12] Finally, Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL)—a private company involved in producing nuclear fuel, reprocessing and storing spent fuel, and disposing of nuclear waste—plans to start up the Rokkasho plant this October. Further delay is still possible, however, because the NRA review of the plant’s compatibility with the new safety regulations has been delayed and it is still uncertain when the plant will be completed.

In light of all these uncertainties and obstacles, trying to balance plutonium supply and demand will be a very tricky and complicated task, particularly if the Rokkasho plant begins operations and if restarted reactors do not have sufficient capacity to consume existing plutonium stockpiles or prevent an increase in these stocks.

An International Problem

Japan’s plutonium stockpile is not merely a national political and program-management problem. Countries in East Asia have long expressed concerns that Japan’s reprocessing and recycle policy has made Japan a plutonium superpower and put Tokyo in a position to develop nuclear weapons very quickly, should it decide to do so.

In answering what was an obviously staged question last January about press reports that Japan would return several hundred kilograms of weapons-grade nuclear material to the United States,[13] a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, made several sharply critical points about Japan’s plutonium policy.

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.…. Only when there is such a balance, there can be no hidden dangers that may risk peaceful use of nuclear energy.…

We also urge Japan to take concrete steps to tell the international community how it is going to redress the big supply-demand imbalance of nuclear materials on its territory as required by the IAEA.[14]

Hua also said that 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.” Under those guidelines, states are to increase transparency of their plutonium stocks by publishing annual statements of their holdings of unirradiated plutonium and periodic statements explaining their national nuclear power strategies.[15] Japan and eight other states agreed to follow the guidelines, which are voluntary.

According to press reports, the Japanese government failed to include 640 kilograms of plutonium in its annual statement to the IAEA in 2012 and 2013. In response, Hua said, “It is Japan who should answer the question of whether it is an unintentional omission or a deliberate concealment. Japan is not only required but also obligated to report faithfully its storage and usage of nuclear materials to the IAEA.” She added,

The Japanese side has long been holding a large amount of sensitive nuclear materials that far exceeds its actual needs, which is a matter of grave concern for the international community. We hope that the Japanese side can give an earnest response to the concern of the international community, take concrete actions as soon as possible to address the supply-demand imbalance of sensitive nuclear materials at an early date and refrain from, in particular, actions that may aggregate the imbalance.[16]

Japan voluntarily agreed to manage its civilian plutonium responsibly, including taking into account “the importance of balancing supply and demand, including demand for reasonable working stocks for nuclear operations, as soon as practical.”[17] The Japanese explained that the failure to report the 640 kilograms was due to their erroneous belief the plutonium was exempt from reporting.[18] Nevertheless, it is subject to IAEA safeguards and therefore known to the agency.

Beijing’s criticisms appear to reflect growing tensions with Tokyo. Relations between the two countries have worsened since China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea in 2013 and its related long-standing dispute with Japan over Beijing’s claims to islands in that sea.

The Chinese statement elicited responses from IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano and Joseph Macmanus, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, expressing confidence in the peaceful nature of Japan’s nuclear program and its proper handling of its plutonium.[19] Nevertheless, when the previous Japanese government suggested in 2012 that it intended to phase out Japan’s nuclear power program but continue to reprocess spent fuel, U.S. officials reportedly raised strong objections. According to news accounts, the officials said such a policy would lead to an increase in stocks of Japanese plutonium and set a bad nonproliferation example. They called on Tokyo to keep the amount of its plutonium to a minimum, the reports said.[20]

The U.S. government has long opposed the accumulation of weapons-usable materials, a policy reiterated by President Barack Obama when he said in March 2012, “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.”[21] The communiqué of the March 2014 nuclear security summit in The Hague also encouraged countries to minimize their stocks of highly enriched uranium and “to keep their stockpile of separated plutonium to the minimum level, both as consistent with national requirements.”[22]

An Alternative Path

Opposition to the closed fuel cycle—which involves reprocessing of spent fuel and recycling of the plutonium into fresh fuel—has also been virtually universal in the nonproliferation and arms control community, which criticizes reprocessing as an uneconomical approach posing significant risks of proliferation and nuclear theft. In a recent article, two critics urged Japan to adopt an approach, known as the once-through fuel cycle, in which spent fuel is not reprocessed but stored and eventually disposed of. More specifically, the article included the following steps:

  • negotiating with the prefectural and local governments that host nuclear power plants for on-site dry-cask storage of spent fuel;
  • renegotiating the deal with Aomori prefecture and the village of Rokkasho concerning the construction and operation of the reprocessing plant and the MOX fuel fabrication facility;
  • having the central government take responsibility for final disposal of spent fuel away from the nuclear utilities and the operator of the Rokkasho plant; and
  • disposing directly of Japan’s 44 tons of already separated plutonium instead of using it in MOX fuel in Japan’s nuclear power plants.[23]

A once-though fuel-cycle strategy would avoid an increase in Japanese stockpiles. Yet, any attempt to adopt all or even some aspects of this strategy would be a bumpy, grueling, and protracted ride. It would require convincing local communities to keep spent fuel at reactor sites; renegotiating agreements with Aomori prefecture, which supports reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication; changing the law governing the national Reprocessing Fund, which bars repayment of loans for the construction of the Rokkasho plant unless the JNFL, whose majority shareholder is the FEPC, commits to operating the reprocessing plant, taking responsibility for final disposal of spent fuel away from itself and the nuclear utilities; and directly disposing of plutonium. Because industry, politicians, and local communities would fiercely resist these steps, implementing them is not likely to be any easier or quicker than putting the Abe administration’s program into effect.

Thus, although Japan should make every effort to reduce its plutonium stockpile and will sooner or later find a path—or, more likely, paths—toward this objective, its plutonium stocks are unlikely to go away anytime soon, no matter what policy or combination of policies Tokyo pursues.

The Custodial Regime

In the meantime, how should Japan deal with concerns that it is accumulating its stockpile as part of a “bomb in the basement” strategy or as a warning to China and North Korea that it is capable of developing nuclear weapons?

The charges that Japan is seeking nuclear weapons are not credible. It has become a cliché that the Japanese, as the only victims of nuclear weapons use, have a widespread and deeply felt opposition to nuclear weapons. Japan’s Atomic Energy Basic Law of 1956 restricts research, development, and utilization of nuclear power to peaceful uses. Japan is a strong supporter of all elements of the global nonproliferation regime, is a party in compliance with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and has a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA. It is not plausible that Japan would seek nuclear weapons as long as Tokyo has confidence in the security guarantee that the United States provides in its 1960 treaty with Japan.

There is no sign U.S.-Japanese ties are going to weaken. They are likely to be cemented in the coming years as U.S. policy rebalances to Asia and as Chinese-Japanese relations become more contentious. Nevertheless, given the rising tensions in East Asia and the portrayal of Japan’s plutonium policy by some as a strategy to develop a nuclear weapons capability, Tokyo needs to take steps to reassure the region and the global community of its peaceful nuclear intentions.

One step that Japan could take to demonstrate its commitment to use its plutonium for exclusively civilian purposes would be to place its excess plutonium under the custody of the IAEA. Article XII of the agency’s statute provides that the IAEA has the right “to require deposit with the Agency of any excess of any fissionable materials recovered or produced as a by-product over what is needed for [peaceful purposes]…in order to prevent stockpiling of these materials.” The statute also provides that, “[a]t the request of the member or members concerned special fissionable materials so deposited with the Agency shall be returned promptly to the member or members concerned,” provided that the material is used for peaceful purposes under continuing IAEA safeguards.

Although this provision has been in the statute since the agency’s inception in 1957, it never has been implemented. An IAEA experts group on international plutonium storage held several meetings from 1978 until 1982, but failed to reach agreement on an IAEA storage regime.

It may be time for Japan to consider concluding an agreement with the IAEA for a custodial regime for its excess plutonium. The details of such an agreement would have to be negotiated between Japan and the IAEA, and the agreement would have to be approved by the agency’s Board of Governors. It should have the following broad characteristics:

  • Japan would determine the amount of plutonium to be placed under IAEA custody, but there would be a presumption that material not being used or not designated for use within a specified period of time would be excess and be deposited with the agency.
  • Japan and the IAEA would agree on the location of storage sites, presumably co-located with Japanese reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication facilities.
  • The agency would retain custody of the excess plutonium until the Japanese government requests its release for a specified peaceful use, for example, in a MOX fuel fabrication plant, a nuclear power plant, a vitrification facility, or a direct disposal site.
  • Japan could not remove the materials from IAEA custody until it submitted to the IAEA a request for release of a specified quantity accompanied by an end-use certificate. The certificate of use would contain the following assurances and information:
    • an assurance that the material would be used for exclusively peaceful, nonexplosive purposes;
    • an assurance that the plutonium would be subject to continuing IAEA safeguards in accordance with the provisions of the IAEA-Japanese safeguards agreement or, if the material were to be exported to another country, that it would be subject to the safeguards agreement between the IAEA and that country;
    • an assurance that the material would remain under effective physical protection in accordance with accepted international standards;
    • a description of the quantity and composition of the material to be released from custody;
    • the approximate date of delivery;
    • the timetable foreseen for utilization; and
    • the destination and end use: fabrication into MOX fuel assemblies and prompt irradiation in a designated reactor, use in some research application, or immobilization and disposal.

An IAEA-Japanese custodial agreement would need to provide that the release of the plutonium from agency custody would be only for a declared, specific, immediate, and peaceful use and that the timing of release and the quantity and form of the material would be consistent with the declared end use and thus not result in stockpiling. The decision to release plutonium from custody should not be subject to debate by the IAEA board, as release would be a routine matter based on the provision of a certificate of use.

IAEA custody of the plutonium would not change most of the basic physical arrangements; operational, safety, and physical protection responsibilities; or nonproliferation conditions under which Japanese plutonium is now stored. The plutonium would not be moved to a separate IAEA facility, but would remain in storage under IAEA custody at sites such as Rokkasho or other locations where plutonium is normally stored. The title to the plutonium would remain with Japan; ownership would not be transferred to the IAEA. Japanese companies owning plutonium-storage facilities would retain responsibility for their management and operation.

In addition, safety and physical protection would remain the responsibility of Japanese authorities. The IAEA would apply safeguards at sites where Japanese plutonium is under IAEA custody as part of the agency’s normal safeguards responsibilities. The plutonium would remain subject to all nonproliferation assurances and conditions required by the NPT or by the suppliers of the nuclear material or equipment from which the plutonium had been produced. If the IAEA custodial regime were extended to Japanese plutonium located in the United Kingdom or France, the same conditions would apply. In other words, the relevant French or UK entities or authorities would have responsibilities for management, operation, safety, and physical protection of Japanese plutonium under IAEA custody on their territories.

Benefits of IAEA Custody

The proposed IAEA custodial regime would offer several benefits over and above the agency’s traditional safeguards system and other elements of the global nonproliferation regime.

Elimination of national stockpiling. It would remove excess plutonium from the sole control of Japan by placing it under the legal custody of an international organization.

Strengthened barriers to diversion. The purpose of traditional IAEA safeguards is to detect the diversion of a significant quantity[24] of nuclear material and to deter such diversion by the threat of early detection. The IAEA custodial regime would go beyond classical safeguards because it would afford the agency the legal authority to bar Japan from removing the material from its custody unless it met certain conditions for release. Unauthorized removal of the plutonium would require seizing the material in defiance of the international custodial authorities.

The establishment of IAEA legal custody over the material pending specified peaceful use would thus erect a significant new legal barrier to diversion. There could also be a physical barrier to removal, such as a two-key system that would require action by an IAEA official and a Japanese official for release of material from IAEA custody. In such a case, the operator should have the right to remove material from IAEA custody in emergency circumstances such as a fire. Any emergency entry would have to involve an immediate notice to the IAEA.

Increased transparency. The IAEA would verify that the location, form, and composition of material that it allowed to be released would be consistent with the declared use. Provided it does not compromise security and proprietary requirements, the IAEA should publish information on the quantity, form, and locations of the plutonium under its custody and on any of the material released from its custody, including the specific peaceful uses or disposition of such material in Japanese facilities. (Plutonium holdings published under the IAEA plutonium management guidelines are self-reported and are given on a countrywide basis.) After release of the plutonium from IAEA custody, the agency would apply safeguards to verify the ongoing peaceful, nonexplosive use of the material and confirm that it is being used for the particular application specified by Japan.

Increased assurance of effective physical protection and safety. Japanese physical protection measures have come under considerable criticism. In reaction to the September 11 attacks in the United States, Japan has improved security at its facilities, but still has much more to do. Japan was one of 35 countries that signed the initiative on strengthening nuclear security implementation at the March nuclear security summit. The signers pledged to “meet the intent” of various IAEA recommendations on physical protection and nuclear security guidelines and “to embed the objectives of the nuclear security fundamentals and the IAEA recommendations in national rules and regulations and to host peer reviews to ensure effective implementation.”[25]

Japan has recently deposited its instrument of acceptance of the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material with the IAEA. An IAEA-Japanese custodial agreement should require that the physical protection and safety measures for plutonium meet international standards while under the agency’s custody and during transport and use. The IAEA should verify that these standards are being met.

Minimal cost. The proposed custodial regime should not be particularly burdensome or costly to Japan or the IAEA. Because Japan is already a party to the NPT, its plutonium is already under IAEA safeguards. The incremental costs of administering a custodial regime should be relatively small. Although they could be covered by the agency’s budget, it would be prudent for Japan to pay for the additional expenses.

Plutonium in Japan and Europe

Unirradiated plutonium in Japan should be the prime candidate for submission to IAEA custody. That should include plutonium that has been fabricated into MOX fuel elements or assemblies but has no scheduled, near-term use.

The IAEA custodial regime also could encompass Japanese plutonium stocks located in France and the UK. Expanding the undertaking in this way clearly would be desirable from a nonproliferation point of view. Japan should explore the willingness of the French and UK governments to negotiate appropriate custodial arrangements with the IAEA and Japan for Japanese plutonium on their territories.

Even if London or Paris proves unwilling to put Japanese plutonium on its territory under IAEA custody, Tokyo should move ahead with placing plutonium on Japanese territory under such a custodial regime.

A Model for Others

If the custodial regime works well in Japan, it might serve as a model for other states with large plutonium stocks to place their excess civilian plutonium under IAEA custody.

Like Japan, some NPT nuclear-weapon states have substantial stocks of unirradiated civilian plutonium with no short-term or easy path for its disposition. Although it would take a radical change in mind-set for the nuclear-weapon states to place their excess civilian plutonium under IAEA custody, it would be a meaningful step toward fulfilling their disarmament commitments under Article VI of the NPT.[26]

NPT nuclear-weapon states may withdraw material from their voluntary safeguards agreements for national security reasons. If their excess civilian plutonium were under an IAEA custodial regime, it could be released from its custody only for peaceful, nonexplosive purposes and could not be returned to military use. Such a step would help respond to the recommendations of the 2010 NPT Review Conference for increased transparency of nuclear materials in nuclear-weapon states.[27]

An IAEA custodial regime for Japanese plutonium stocks is admittedly a modest step. It would not help Japan shrink its plutonium stocks. Tokyo must move as expeditiously as possible to fulfill its promises to reduce its plutonium stocks, and an IAEA custody regime should not be used as a justification for continued stockpiling. Such a regime, however, might alleviate international concerns and regional tensions over this issue until an option or options for reducing and eliminating Japanese plutonium stocks can be implemented. In addition, it could establish a good nonproliferation model for others countries with excess civilian plutonium stocks.

Fred McGoldrick served for many years as a senior official with the U.S. Department of State and Department of Energy and with the U.S. mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) dealing with nonproliferation and civilian nuclear cooperation issues. He participated in the talks on an international plutonium-storage regime at the IAEA in the early 1980s and in the negotiations on the IAEA’s “Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium.” He is presently a consultant on nonproliferation and civilian nuclear cooperation issues.


1. In its latest declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Japan Atomic Energy Commission reported that as of December 31, 2012, Japan held 44,241 kilograms of separated unirradiated plutonium, of which 9,295 kilograms was stored in Japan and 34,946 kilograms was stored in France and the United Kingdom. IAEA, “Communication Received From Japan Concerning Its Policies Regarding the Management of Plutonium,” INFCIRC/549/Add.1/15, October 3, 2012.

2. Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, “Strategic Energy Plan,” April 2014, p. 54, http://www.enecho.meti.go.jp/en/.

3. Federation of Electric Companies of Japan, “About plutonium utilization which is produced in Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant” (in Japanese), March 26, 2013, http://www.aec.go.jp/jicst/NC/iinkai/teirei/siryo2013/siryo11/siryo2-2.pdf.

4. Anna Fifield, “Japan Gives Green Light to Restart Pair of Nuclear Reactors,” The Washington Post, July 15, 2014; “Safety Approval for First Japanese Reactor Restarts,” World Nuclear News, July 16, 2014, http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS-Safety-approval-for-first-Japanese-reactor-restarts-1607141.html.

5. “Safety Approval for First Japanese Reactor Restarts.”

6. Mari Saito, Aaron Sheldrick, and Kentaro Hamada, “Japan May Only Be Able to Restart One-Third of Its Nuclear Reactors,” Reuters, April 1, 2014.

7. Ibid. See also Diane Barnes, “Japan’s Plutonium Plan Hits New, Local Obstacles,” Global Security Newswire, April 10, 2014.

8. “Japan City Launches Legal Bid to Halt Reactor Build,” Nuclear Power Daily, July 3, 2014, http://www.nuclearpowerdaily.com/reports/Japan_city_launches_legal_bid_to_halt_reactor_build_999.html.

9. “Japan Court Rules Against Nuclear Restart in Rare Win for Activists,” Reuters, May 21, 2014.

10. Saito, Sheldrick, and Hamada, “Japan May Only Be Able to Restart One-Third of Its Nuclear Reactors.”

11. World Nuclear Association, “Nuclear Power in Japan,” April 2014, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-G-N/Japan/.

12. The government plans to convert the facility into a center for research on reducing the volume of nuclear waste and improving technologies related to nonproliferation.

13. The agreement to transfer the material was announced in March at the nuclear security summit in The Hague.

14. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on February 17, 2014,” http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2535_665405/t1129283.shtml.

15. IAEA, “Communication Received From Certain Member States Concerning Their Policies Regarding the Management of Plutonium,” INFCIRC/549, March 16, 1998 (hereinafter INFCIRC/549).

16. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on June 9, 2014,” http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1163678.shtml.

17. INFCIRC/549.

18. The material was located at an idle reactor in the form of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. Nevertheless, the plutonium was unirradiated, and Japan should have reported it to the IAEA as it agreed to do under the plutonium guidelines. “Japan Fails to Include 640 kg of Unused Plutonium in Report to IAEA,” Kyodo News, June 7, 2014.

19. Frederik Dahl, “Japan’s Plutonium Stocks No Reason for Concern - IAEA Chief,” Reuters, March 3, 2014; Frederik Dahl, “U.S. Says ‘Not at All Concerned’ About Japan’s Plutonium,” Reuters, March 5, 2014.

20. “U.S. Urges Japan on Plutonium Fears,” Power Engineering, October 4, 2012.

21. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Obama at Hankuk University, March 26, 2012,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/03/26/remarks-president-obama-hankuk-university.

22. “The Hague Nuclear Security Summit Communiqué,” March 25, 2014, https://www.nss2014.com/sites/default/files/documents/the_hague_nuclear_security_summit_communique_final.pdf.

23. Masafumi Takubo and Frank von Hippel, “Ending Reprocessing in Japan: An Alternative Approach to Managing Japan’s Spent Fuel and Separated Plutonium,” November 2013, http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr12.pdf.

24. The IAEA considers eight kilograms of plutonium to be a significant quantity. For highly enriched uranium, the amount is 25 kilograms.

25. In addition, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged at the March nuclear security summit to strengthen security measures for Japanese nuclear materials and facilities and indicated that Japan would invite a visit by the IAEA International Physical Protection Advisory Service by the spring of 2015.

26. Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) states, “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

27. The final document from the 2010 NPT Review Conference contains an action plan that includes the following items:

Action 16: The nuclear-weapon States are encouraged to commit to declare, as appropriate, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) all fissile material designated by each of them as no longer required for military purposes and to place such material as soon as practicable under IAEA or other relevant international verification and arrangements for the disposition of such material for peaceful purposes, to ensure that such material remains permanently outside military programmes.

Action 17: In the context of action 16, all States are encouraged to support the development of appropriate legally binding verification arrangements, within the context of IAEA, to ensure the irreversible removal of fissile material designated by each nuclear-weapon State as no longer required for military purposes.

2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document,” NPT/CONF.2010/50 (Vol. I), June 18, 2010.

A modest but valuable step in addressing Japan’s plutonium problem would be for Tokyo to place its excess plutonium under the custody of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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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.

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.


Strains Seen in Japan’s Plutonium Policy

Daniel Horner

Japan’s recently proposed energy strategy is not clear on how to address fundamental policy questions on the country’s approach to spent nuclear fuel, reprocessing, and plutonium use, a Japanese official and a U.S. nuclear expert said in interviews last month.

On Sept. 14, the Japanese government issued an energy strategy document that contemplates the phase-out of nuclear power by about 2040. A cabinet decision five days later made clear that the strategy document did not constitute a binding policy decision, and the strategy could be scrapped entirely if the current Japanese government falls from power in the upcoming elections, which are expected to take place by next summer.

The new energy strategy is part of Japan’s response to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors on March 11, 2011.

For decades, a central part of Japan’s nuclear plans has been what energy and nonproliferation specialists call “closing the fuel cycle.” That involves reprocessing the spent fuel from power reactors to separate plutonium that is then used in making fresh fuel for reactors.

The strategy document says “it is necessary…to tackle squarely” the question of what to do with spent fuel, but does not make specific commitments in that regard. It commits Japan to “continu[ing] its present nuclear fuel cycle policy,” although it adds a few caveats.

“We have not decided anything important” with regard to the plutonium program, the Japanese official said in an Oct. 25 interview. In fact, he said, the policy contains some “contradictory” elements.

For example, the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, where Japan plans to reprocess spent fuel from its power plants, has been authorized to operate beyond the year 2050, but the strategy does not explain how reprocessing will continue if the nuclear power plants that would consume the plutonium separated at Rokkasho have been shut down, he said.

The Rokkasho plant has faced many problems and has not begun commercial operation; the current estimate for its startup is October 2013. Japan has shipped much of its spent fuel to France and the United Kingdom for reprocessing. Of the approximately 44 metric tons of separated plutonium that Japan owns, about nine metric tons are in Japan, with the remaining 35 metric tons roughly evenly split between the two European reprocessors, according to the most recent figures released by Japan.

International Sensitivities

In an Oct. 19 interview, Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, said Japanese officials are “acutely aware” of the potential concerns in Asia and elsewhere raised by the plutonium surplus. There have been “numerous discussions” with the U.S. government on the issue, said Ferguson, who is co-chairman of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation’s U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group.

Japanese media have reported that, at a meeting in September, U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman encouraged Japanese officials to minimize the amount of plutonium they stockpiled.

In an Oct. 17 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a Poneman aide declined to comment on “the specifics of diplomatic discussions.” With regard to the U.S. policy on reprocessing and plutonium use, she said it is up to the Japanese government to make the decision and “the United States is eager to help in any way Japan finds useful as it explores its future approach to nuclear power.” The United States has proposed that the two countries discuss “the non-proliferation and security aspects of the new nuclear energy policy,” she said.

Domestic Commitments

Ferguson and the Japanese official stressed that the domestic politics of Japan’s fuel cycle are complicated and likely to play a major role in whatever decision the country ultimately makes in that area.

As the two men described it, one of the inducements to the residents of Aomori to agree to host the Rokkasho plant was that it would not become a long-term repository for spent fuel and radioactive waste. Yet, the official said, nuclear operators in Japan also made a commitment to the localities hosting nuclear power plants that they would not have to store spent fuel on-site indefinitely and could transfer it eventually to a reprocessing plant such as the Rokkasho facility. That combination of commitments does not give policymakers much latitude on fuel cycle policy, regardless of what decisions they make with regard to nuclear power, he said.

In addition to plutonium, reprocessing produces so-called high-level waste, which also requires a repository. A key question for Japanese fuel-cycle policy is where the country will decide to locate this facility, Ferguson said.

In part because of the uncertainties about the size of the Japanese reactor fleet in the coming years, it is unclear how rapidly the separated plutonium could be consumed. Ferguson and the official said one option being discussed is to develop fast-neutron reactors, which are capable of “breeding” more plutonium than they consume but also can be used to “burn” plutonium more efficiently than light-water reactors can.

Japan’s recently proposed energy strategy is seen by some as unclear on how to address fundamental policy questions on the country’s approach to spent nuclear fuel, reprocessing, and plutonium use.


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