Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing plant would produce 9 tons of plutonium each year

Tokyo’s ability to both enrich uranium and reprocess spent reactor
fuel has allowed it to amass roughly nine tons of weapons-usable
plutonium on its soil. Activating the Rokkasho plant would produce
that much each year, said officials and industry experts.

Japan’s Nuclear Plan Unsettles U.S, WSJ, By JAY SOLOMON and MIHO INADA
2 May 13,  TOKYO—Japan is preparing to start up a massive nuclear-fuel
reprocessing plant over the objections of the Obama administration,
which fears the move may stoke a broader race for nuclear technologies
and even weapons in North Asia and the Middle East.

The Rokkasho reprocessing facility, based in Japan’s northern Aomori
prefecture, is capable of producing nine tons of weapons-usable
plutonium annually, said Japanese officials and nuclear-industry
experts, enough to build as many as 2,000 bombs, although Japanese
officials say their program is civilian……

Yasufumi Fukushi, a spokesman for Rokkasho’s operator, Japan Nuclear
Fuel Ltd., said that under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal
Democratic Party, idled nuclear-power plants that meet new safety
measures will reopen. He also said the government is pushing ahead
with Rokkasho as part of a national energy policy that seeks to
recycle used nuclear fuel. But with North Korea actively testing
nuclear weaponry and the region brimming with territorial tensions,
U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials have expressed concerns that
the plant would have a far-reaching affect on other nuclear programs.

U.S. officials believe Japan’s neighbors, particularly China, South
Korea and Taiwan, are closely monitoring Rokkasho and its possible
commissioning to gauge whether they also should seek to develop their
own nuclear-fuel technologies, or in Beijing’s case, expand them.

“As a practical matter, if it operates Rokkasho, it will force China
to respond to re-establish that it, Beijing, not Tokyo, is the most
dominant nuclear player in East Asia,” said Henry Sokolski, who heads
the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank.
“Such nuclear tit-for-tats-manship could get ugly.”

Underscoring the concerns are calls by hawkish South Korean and
Japanese politicians to consider whether their governments should
pursue nuclear weapons after North Korea began a series of
atomic-weapons tests in 2006. North Korea’s latest bomb test took
place in February.

A second U.S. concern has to do with the security of Japan’s plutonium
stockpile. Given that the country has drastically reduced the number
of operating reactors that could burn plutonium-based fuels to produce
electricity, the excess plutonium would have to be stored. Rokkasho
has been seen as a facility that will allow Tokyo to reduce
radioactive wastes from its nuclear power plants by reprocessing spent
nuclear fuel.
Japan’s government and private companies have invested more than $21
billion in the Rokkasho facility since its construction began in 1992.
The startup of the plant, however, has been delayed 19 times because
of technical and financial problems, said Japanese officials…..

Tokyo’s ability to both enrich uranium and reprocess spent reactor
fuel has allowed it to amass roughly nine tons of weapons-usable
plutonium on its soil. Activating the Rokkasho plant would produce
that much each year, said officials and industry experts. Japan had a
reprocessing center in central Japan, called Tokai Mura, that
harvested roughly seven tons of plutonium before the plant was shut in
2007.

Japan’s reactors are almost all fueled by enriched uranium, not
plutonium-based fuel. Reactors can be fueled by either, depending on
the technology in use. Nuclear weapons, too, can be produced using
either uranium enriched to weapons-grade or plutonium. Iran, by
comparison, is producing near-weapons-grade uranium, but it also has a
heavy-water reactor being developed that could produce weapons-usable
plutonium.

The Obama administration has conveyed its concerns about the security
of surplus plutonium to Japan in recent weeks, said U.S. and Japanese
officials.

Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission,
met in April in Washington with Obama administration officials, and
paraphrased what he said was their message: “Allowing Japan to acquire
large amounts of plutonium without clear prospects for a plutonium-use
plan is a bad example for the rest of the world.”…..
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324582004578456943867189804.html

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