Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Tokyo and Washington Have Another Nuclear Problem

| Aug. 17, 2017

This week, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera are meeting in Washington with their U.S. counterparts, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, to discuss how the United States and Japan should respond to the latest North Korean provocations. This is wise; only through close cooperation with Japan and South Korea, and by working with China, will we be able to address effectively the nuclear threat Pyongyang poses.

That said, these officials ought to contemplate another longer-term and yet potentially grave nuclear threat — the growth of plutonium production capacity in Japan, China, and, perhaps South Korea. Although this problem is complicated, its solution, if we act cooperatively now, is not. The trick is to move soon. This week, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera are meeting in Washington with their U.S. counterparts, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, to discuss how the United States and Japan should respond to the latest North Korean provocations. This is wise; only through close cooperation with Japan and South Korea, and by working with China, will we be able to address effectively the nuclear threat Pyongyang poses. That said, these officials ought to contemplate another longer-term and yet potentially grave nuclear threat — the growth of plutonium production capacity in Japan, China, and, perhaps South Korea. Although this problem is complicated, its solution, if we act cooperatively now, is not. The trick is to move soon.

Japan is planning to open a massive spent reactor fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho in the fall of 2018. It is designed to produce 8,000 kilograms of weapons-usable plutonium, enough to make more than 1,000 nuclear weapons a year. The ostensible reason for operating this plant is recycling spent fuel to supply power reactors and a fast reactor. There is only one problem: Japan only has five reactors on line and just terminated its only fast reactor project. In short, there is no way Japan can operate Rokkasho without piling up tons of plutonium for years on end. Japan is planning to open a massive spent reactor fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho in the fall of 2018. It is designed to produce 8,000 kilograms of weapons-usable plutonium, enough to make more than 1,000 nuclear weapons a year. The ostensible reason for operating this plant is recycling spent fuel to supply power reactors and a fast reactor. There is only one problem: Japan only has five reactors on line and just terminated its only fast reactor project. In short, there is no way Japan can operate Rokkasho without piling up tons of plutonium for years on end.

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For Academic Citation: Tobey, William and Henry Sokolski.“Tokyo and Washington Have Another Nuclear Problem.” Foreign Policy, August 17, 2017.

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