The Economist explainsWhy does Japan have so much plutonium?

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The Economist explainsWhy does Japan have so much plutonium?

The Economist explainsWhy does Japan have so much plutonium?

The nuclear material at the heart of Japan’s energy policy is becoming a liability

The Economist explains

TEN years after the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American nuclear bombs, Japan embraced “atoms for peace”, a policy of civilian nuclear power championed by Dwight Eisenhower, America’s president. The dowry in this unlikely cold-war marriage of convenience was six kilograms of enriched uranium, which Japan used to seed a nuclear-energy programme that would eventually provide it with about a third of its electricity. In 1988 Japan was permittedâ€"under tight international controlsâ€"to enrich uranium and extract plutonium, employing the same technology used to make nuclear bombs. This month the two governments extended the 1988 agreement. Japan has now amassed 47 tonnes of plutonium, enough to make 6,000 bombs. What is Japan doing with so much plutonium?

Plutonium is at the heart of Japan’s tarnished dream of energy independence. Spent fuel from nuclear reactors can be reprocessed to extract plutonium, which is then recycled into mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel. This was intended for use in Japan’s reactors but most of its nuclear power plants have been offline since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Tougher safety checks have failed to reassure the nuclear-phobic public that the reactors can be restarted. And Japan’s nuclear-energy fleet is ageing. Taro Kono, Japan’s foreign minister, has admitted that this situation is “extremely unstable”.

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Japan’s status as a plutonium superpower is increasingly under scrutiny. The government says it has no intention of building a bomb. But China and other countries question how long it can be allowed to stockpile plutonium. Analysts worry about a competitive build-up of plutonium in Asia. Moreover Japan’s stock, which is weapons-grade, is reprocessed and stored in France and Britain. It is moved across the world in heavily armed convoys. America says those shipments and the storage of plutonium in civilian sites present a potential threat to non-proliferation goals: they could be redirected to make weapons, or targeted by terrorists. It is nudging its ally to start reducing the hoard.

One solution might be to fire up the Rokkasho plant, the centerpiece of Japan’s nuclear recycling policy. Rokkasho, in Japan’s snowy north, could produce eight tonnes of plutonium a year. But it is three times over budget and two decades late (it is now supposed to open in March 2022). Even if it someday works, most of the reactors supposed to use its MOX fuel are offline. America could tighten the screws or even terminate the 1988 pact (a clause allows it to do so) though the robust bilateral alliance makes that very unlikely. That means Japan must either find a way to bury its cache undergroundâ€"a huge and costly feat of engineeringâ€"or pay countries such as Britain and France to store it overseas, perhaps permanently. The most likely scenario is a continuation of the status quo, unstable as it is.

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