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February 2006 Issue


Commentators and public interest groups in South Korea have expressed growing concern about the proliferation potential of new Japanese and South Korean facilities for processing plutonium-bearing spent fuel from nuclear power reactors. The facilities at issue, although they use different processes, remove highly radioactive contaminants from the spent reactor fuel, leaving a mix of plutonium and uranium, which Japan and South Korea plan to reuse, at some time in the future, as fuel in their nuclear power reactors.

Separated plutonium, however, can also be used as the core of a nuclear weapon, and because plutonium can be readily separated from the plutonium-uranium amalgam that the plants will produce, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) considers these mixes to be virtually as dangerous as plutonium itself. For this reason, the Agency’s regulations require that these mixed materials be subject to the same inspection regimen and physical protection measures as separated plutonium.

Although the Japanese and South Korean facilities will be subject to continuous IAEA monitoring to ensure that materials are not diverted for nuclear weapons, it would theoretically be possible at some future point for the host country to violate its IAEA obligations and use plutonium from the facilities for military purposes. Similarly, although the output of the two facilities will be subject to strict physical security measures, the plutonium-uranium mixes could be attractive targets for terrorists during production, transportation, or use at reactor sites.

Japanese Plant
The Japanese facility, at Rokkasho-mura, near the northern end of Honshu, will be among the world’s largest nuclear spent fuel “reprocessing” plants, able to process the fuel discharged from 30 nuclear power plants annually. Japan Nuclear Fuel, Ltd. (JNFL), which is building the facility, has delayed the start-up trials from December 2005 to mid-2006 due to a reported design error in the high-level radioactive waste storage building. The plant, which uses a variant of the traditional “PUREX” method for reprocessing that keeps plutonium combined with the left-over uranium from the spent fuel, is scheduled to begin full operations in 2007. [1] It will eventually have an annual capacity to reprocess 800 tons of spent fuel, which would yield about eight tons of plutonium. Once it is on-line, Japan will become the only state not possessing nuclear weapons to operate such a facility. [2]

Despite concerns that some critics have raised over the Rokkasho reprocessing facility, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission and the Japanese government, in October 2005, approved a plan to move forward with reprocessing to support the production of mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel at a facility to be built at the same site between 2007 and 2012. The Japanese government argues that reprocessing and the use of MOX are necessary for energy security because it reduces reliance on imported uranium and reduces the amount of nuclear waste requiring permanent storage. [3] Critics argue that Japan’s reprocessing plans pose a proliferation risk and that there is no economic rationale to support the operation of the Rokkasho reprocessing facility, given the availability of inexpensive uranium fuel from reliable suppliers, such as the United States. [4]

Some Japanese supporters argue that it would be difficult and impractical to use plutonium that has been irradiated for long periods in nuclear power reactors (“reactor-grade” plutonium) in a nuclear weapon because of the increased presence of certain types of plutonium atoms (“isotopes”) that would interfere with the process of creating a nuclear explosion. They argue that irradiating reactor-grade plutonium a second time, as MOX fuel, increases the proportion of these isotopes to the point of making the plutonium practically unusable for nuclear arms. [5] IAEA regulations do not treat these forms of plutonium as unsuited to this purpose, however. [5]

Despite the technical arguments presented to support Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle policy, the Rokkasho reprocessing facility has raised concerns in Korea about Tokyo’s nuclear intentions. On December 15, 2005, 67 South Korean non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and 121 university professors signed a declaration calling for the immediate repeal of Japan’s plan to operate the Rokkasho plant. [6] The signatories predominantly fall into four categories: environmental protection groups, labor activist groups, religious organizations, and peace activist groups. The major organizations include the Democratic Labor Party, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, Green Korea, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Civil Network for a Peaceful Korea, and the Korea Federation for Environmental Movement. All of these organizations are adept at using the Internet to disseminate their message to South Korean society, which is likely to create widespread awareness of their concerns.

The Korean organizations’ declaration argued that the Rokkasho reprocessing plant will be a setback to global nonproliferation efforts and have a negative impact on measures to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The document stated that the facility will worsen Korea’s distrust of Japan and condemned the facility’s possible threat to the environment. [6]

Korean Facility
Only four days after the release of the declaration opposing the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, Agence France Presse reported that the IAEA was investigating whether South Korea was planning to use a pilot pyrometallurgical processing facility under construction in Taejŏn to produce plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons. [7] The facility uses electrochemical processes on spent fuel immersed in molten salt to remove plutonium and uranium, as distinct from the PUREX process, which is based on dissolving spent fuel in nitric acid and processing the solution. The report, which cited an unnamed diplomat, was given widespread coverage in the South Korean media. It also noted that the IAEA in November 2004 had reprimanded South Korea after it admitted separating small amounts of plutonium in the 1980s without notifying the agency, as required under the country’s commitments to the IAEA.

The story drew a quick rebuttal from the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI). [8] KAERI emphasized that the preliminary design plans for the Taejŏn facility were submitted to the IAEA in July 2004 to facilitate future monitoring of the facility and that IAEA inspectors had visited the construction site in August and September 2005. Furthermore, KAERI stressed, pryometallurgical processing does not separate the plutonium from the uranium remaining in spent nuclear fuel, making the plutonium-bearing product more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, compared to separated plutonium. The pilot facility under construction, KAERI stressed, was intended to facilitate the management of spent nuclear power reactor fuel and the reuse of plutonium in civilian nuclear power plants in the form of MOX fuel. [9]

The commercial nuclear power sector will continue to expand in Northeast Asia. The recent controversies over the Rokkasho and Taejŏn facilities underscore the need for transparency as commercial nuclear activities are pursued in the region and highlight the important role the IAEA will play in ensuring spent fuel processing facilities do not engender suspicions as to the intentions of host countries. With a recent poll showing that a majority of South Koreans believe their country should develop nuclear weapons, perceptions of Japanese intentions, for example, could be an important factor in the evolution of future South Korean nuclear policy. [10]

[1] Shinichi Ogawa and Michael Schiffer, “Japan’s Plutonium Reprocessing Dilemma,” Arms Control Today, October 2005.
[2] FBIS Report in English, December 1, 2005, in “Japan: Media Concern Reflects Plutonium Stockpile Increase,” FBIS document JPP20051202362001; “Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant Startup Delayed Again,” SpentFUEL, November 28, 2005, p. 3; Eric Johnson, “Rokkasho Drawing Proliferation Flak,” The Japan Times, November 15, 2005, in Lexis-Nexis.
[3] Atomic Energy Commission of Japan, “White Paper on Nuclear Energy 2003,” http://aec.jst.go.jp/jicst/NC/about/hakusho/hakusho2003/whitepaper2003.pdf; The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan website, “Why is Japan Pursuing a ‘Closed’ Nuclear Fuel Cycle?” http://www.japannuclear.com/nuclearpower/fuelcycle/why.html; [View Article] Denki Shimbun, November 14, 2005, in “Japan: 10th Nuclear Energy Policy Outline to Continue Nuclear Fuel Cycle Program,” FBIS document JPP20051117362006; Kyodo World Service, October 14, 2005, in “Kyodo: Gov’t OKs Nuclear Policy Featuring Fuel Reprocessing,” FBIS document JPP20051014969002.
[4] For example, see Frank Barnaby and Shaun Burnie, “Thinking the Unthinkable: Japanese Nuclear Power and Proliferation in East Asia,” a joint publication of the Oxford Research Group and the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, August 2005; Pak Sŏng-jun, “Hanbando haek-ilbon’ŭi haek chamjaeryŏk [Korean Peninsula Nukes-Japan’s Latent Nuclear Power],” Sisa Journal, May 12, 2005, Tak’ubo Masahumi, “Ilbon, 12 wŏl rok’ashyomura haek chaech’ŏrigongjang sihŏmgadong [Japan, December Test Operation of Rokkasho-mura Nuclear Reprocessing Plant], Shindonga, Issue 552, September 1, 2005, pp. 328-337.
[5] On this issue, see Bruno Pellaud, “Proliferation Aspects of Plutonium Recycling,” Journal of Nuclear Materials Management, Vol. 31, No. 1, Fall 2002, pp. 30-38, http://www.inmm.org/topics/contents/fall02issue/pellaud.pdf. [View Article] IAEA Information Circular 225 The Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities (INFCIRC/225/Rev.4), http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/1999/infcirc225r4c/rev4_content.html; [View Article] Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the National Academy of Sciences, “Nuclear Weapons Using Plutonium From a Power Reactor,” http://www.ccnr.org/reactor_plute.html. [View Article]
[6] “67 kae siminsahoedanch’ewa kyosu 121in ‘rok’ashyomura haekchaech’ŏri kongjang kadonggyehoek’ ch’ŏlhoe ch’okku [67 Civil Groups and 121 Professors Demand the Repeal of Operation Plans for the Rokkasho-mura Reprocessing Plant], Green Korea, December 15, 2005.
[7] “UN Agency Probes Whether SKorea [sic] Plans Plutonium Work,” Agence France Presse, December 19, 2005, in Lexis-Nexis.
[8] Choi Kyong-ae, “Seoul Denies Plutonium Production Allegation,” Korea Times, December 20, 2005, http://times.hankooki.com/lpage/200512/kt2005122017120310220.htm; [View Article] Han’gug’wŏnjaryŏg’yŏn’guso (KAERI), “AFP t’ongsin ‘han’guk plutonium ch’ŏrigongjŏng IAEA chosa’gyehoeg’’e taehan han’gug’wŏnjaryŏg’yŏn’gusoŭi ipchang [KAERI’s Position on AFP’s [IAEA Plans to Investigate Korea’s Plutonium Processing], Podojaryŏ (Report), December 20, 2005.
[9] For a non-technical discussion of pryometallurgical processing and advanced fuel cycles, see William H. Hannum, Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford, “Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste,” Scientific American, December 2005, pp. 84-91.
[10] See “South Korean Opinion Polls: Majority Favors Nuclear Weapons; 1980s Generation Questions U.S. Ties,” WMD Insights, Issue No. 1, December 2005/January 2006, http://www.wmdinsights.com/Old_EastAsia/DecJan/I1_EA1_SouthKoreanOpinion.htm. [View Article]