Japan's plutonium reserves might prevent N. Korea's denuclearization – Obama-era official
"There are particular concerns that it [Japan's plutonium stockpile] could provide a rationale for nuclear weapon ownership to North Korea, which has nuclear nonproliferation as a goal," Thomas Countryman, a former US assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation under the Barack Obama administration, told the Japanese Tokyo Shimbun newspaper. He went on to say that US President Donald Trump and the current administration "also share these concerns."
Japan indeed possesses vast plutonium reserves, which amount to no less than 46.9 tons, according to the Japanese media. Only 9.8 tons of plutonium are stockpiled in Japan, though, while 37.1 tons are kept overseas. Still, the total amount of the reserves would theoretically allow Japan, which portrays itself as a staunch supporter of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, to produce as many as 5,000 – 6,000 nuclear bombs.
The vast plutonium reserves are the result of Japan's years-long 'nuclear fuel cycle' policy. This energy policy approach envisaged the production of energy almost without additional energy inputs through the use of the so-called fast breeder reactor using plutonium and the subsequent reprocessing of the spent nuclear fuel.
However, in late 2016, Japan decided to decommission its one and only Monju fast breeder reactor. The plans to create a new one have not been fulfilled as of yet, leaving Japan with dozens of tons of plutonium, which it cannot effectively use.
The resulting situation could develop into a significant obstacle to any potential agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, Countryman warned. "When [the US and other countries] try to convince North Korea to give up on its nuclear weapons, it could reply that a neighboring country [Japan] is extracting plutonium," he said.
The former US administration official then went as far as to suggest that Tokyo should "reduce its plutonium reserves" and effectively abandon its nuclear fuel cycle plan altogether to make the negotiations between the US and North Korea go smoothly. He then also called on Japan to urge China, South Korea and North Korea itself to "freeze" all nuclear fuel reprocessing activities in the region, adding that such a move would "increase trust in [Tokyo] as a nuclear nonproliferation leader."
Countryman also noted that Japan's whole nuclear fuel cycle policy "does not pay off." Actually, it was the US that granted Japan the right to reprocess nuclear fuel in the first place. Back in 1987, the two countries signed an atomic energy agreement, which allowed Japan to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.
The agreement, however, is set to expire on July 16. Even though the decision to automatically extend it has already been made, Washington still holds the power to stop Tokyo from further reprocessing plutonium, as it can still nullify the treaty.
In June, the US Department of State and National Security Council already called on Japan to reduce its plutonium stockpiles. Tokyo said that it "will respond in good faith to the request, but this will also require efforts by power companies," adding that "this is not something that is going to happen overnight."