As President Obama struggles to halt North Korea’s and Iran’s further “peaceful” production of nuclear explosive materials, he needs to take care that he doesn’t stimulate the nuclear-fuel-making aspirations of two American allies — Japan and South Korea.
Unlike Iran and North Korea, which are each generating several bombs’ worth of nuclear-weapons fuel a year, Japan may open a plant that can produce eight tons of plutonium a year — enough to make 1,000 to 2,000 nuclear weapons annually. That’s at least as many weapons as are in the entire U.S. operationally deployed nuclear force.
South Korea also wants to make plutonium-based nuclear fuels from imported U.S. power-reactor assemblies. In a Foggy Bottom press conference with secretary of state John Kerry on April 2, South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se made it clear that he wants to revise South Korea’s current nuclear cooperative agreement with the U.S. in order to allow Seoul to make such fuel. Kerry said he hoped to resolve the matter soon. He will visit South Korean president Park Geun-hye in Seoul later this month.
What the secretary will offer President Park, though, is still unclear. If he says yes to Seoul, Japan will be dead set on opening its plant at Rokkasho. This, in turn, is likely to prompt China to up its atomic ante. Beijing has been coy about what its true nuclear capabilities are, but it has been toying with the idea of having the French build it a plutonium-extraction plant nearly identical to the one in Japan. China wants to build the plant adjacent to one of its major military nuclear-production sites in Jiayuguan.
The unspoken nuclear positioning here couldn’t be clearer. Japan already has ten tons of nuclear explosive plutonium stockpiled on its soil from previous reprocessing activities. China is thought to have a bigger reserve of nuclear explosive materials (i.e., a large amount of weapons-grade uranium plus a relatively small amount of nuclear explosive plutonium), but if it gets into the “peaceful” business of extracting plutonium to stay well ahead of Japan, Tokyo will feel compelled to make even more plutonium of its own to keep up. The military overtones of such nuclear fuel making are clear: Over the last six months, prominent Japanese and South Korean parliamentarians have publicly backed increasing domestic civilian nuclear-fuel making as a way to hedge against nuclear threats.
Predictably, nuclear-industry supporters seem blind to all of this. They insist that Japan’s and South Korea’s plans to make plutonium-based fuels are critical to these countries’ management of their nuclear waste. Yet, study after study has found that the proposed fuel-making activities will significantly increase nuclear-waste-management costs compared with storing spent fuel in dry casks on site. Nor is it clear that South Korean demands to enrich U.S. uranium domestically make economic sense when large uranium-enrichment companies with plants in the U.S. and Europe, such as URENCO, are eager to find someone to buy them up.
Some South Korean experts understand these points. Privately, they allow that extending the existing U.S. conditions on nuclear-fuel-making activities for two or four years would give both South Korea and the U.S. the time needed to iron out these issues. As for Japan, officials there know that the U.S. Congress expects Tokyo and Washington to renew the existing nuclear cooperative agreement before it ends in 2018. Right now, no one in Congress is pushing to change the terms of that agreement. If Japan opens Rokkasho and a regional nuclear rivalry ensues, though, all bets may be off.
No one knows how Japan will proceed. If it abruptly terminates the Rokkasho project, the utilities that paid $28 billion to build the plant will see their black-ink investments turn red. But operating Rokkasho is hardly a solution either. Estimates for the lifetime operating costs of the plant vary, but the lowest figure is $100 billion. This guarantees that the project will be a money loser unless the Japanese government (which is broke) somehow can find billions of dollars to subsidize the plant’s operation. Meanwhile, nobody knows how much nuclear power Japan or South Korea will have online in 10, 20, or 30 years. Nor is it clear how much cheap imported natural gas Seoul or Tokyo might be able to secure or how, in Japan’s case, the breaking up of electrical-utility monopolies might further reduce electricity prices.
What, then, in the meantime, should Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo do? What every government excels at — delay. This means, at a minimum, deferring as long as possible any decision to start any form of Korean nuclear-fuel-making or to increase Japanese plutonium production. Whatever time is gained should be used to figure out how to avoid unnecessary and uneconomic nuclear-fuel-making activities not only by our enemies but by our allies as well.