East Asian plutonium policies risk regional stability

East Asian plutonium policies risk regional stability

Major countries in East Asia are either considering or already engaging in reprocessing spent fuel from nuclear power plants—a procedure that builds vulnerable stockpiles of plutonium. Intentions notwithstanding, the policies present serious nuclear and radiological risks.

If there was one prevailing sentiment to arise from the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit that concluded earlier this month, it was that the risk of nuclear terrorism is increasing, and international efforts to adopt safe nuclear practices must be hastened. Countries in attendance—including China, Japan, and South Korea—all committed to “mak[ing] nuclear security an enduring priority,” (source of quote?) a pursuit which in practice must inevitably entail forgoing the unnecessary build-up of dangerous nuclear materials. Yet, in spite of this pledge, all three countries have continued gradually escalating their engagement in what is not yet a nuclear arms race, but rather, an East Asian race for plutonium production.

To be clear, there is no indication that either Japan or South Korea is seeking to build an atomic arsenal, and the three nations’ stated desire for plutonium reprocessing is only in regard to nuclear energy. What has already been established, however, is that threats from nuclear materials are presented in equal or greater measure by terrorist groups keen on acquiring them, and stockpiling only serves to condone build-up or fuel international unease.

In many ways, this trend has been self-perpetuated by incremental shifts in the energy aspirations of Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing alike. Privately, it may also be the result of the increasingly unnerving development of North Korea’s nuclear program. Regardless of origin, the plutonium policies of China, Japan, and South Korea present security risks both regionally and abroad.

East Asian plutonium policies

The public justification from leaders in all three East Asian countries is unanimous: reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is desirable because the high-grade plutonium yielded can then be returned to nuclear energy plants as a power source. That very same yield, however, is also fissile material capable of being used for or refined into a nuclear weapon, and can be utilized for radiological terrorism regardless of its isotope or grade. While China, Japan, and South Korea have been trending towards deeper engagement in this form of plutonium production, each state is at a different stage in the process.

Of the three, Japan is the only country actually engaged in large-scale nuclear reprocessing. As a result of its efforts thus far, Tokyo has accumulated roughly 11 tons of weaponized plutonium domestically, with an additional 36 metric tons stockpiled abroad through agreements with France and the United Kingdom. The IAEA notes that a mere 8 kg of Japanese plutonium would be needed to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

Source: International Panel on Fissile Materials

Thus, Japan is also a vivid embodiment of why reprocessing creates unnecessary security risks. Acknowledging this—or at the very least, recognizing the bad optics at hand—President Abe recently worked with the United States to dispose of 331 kg (0.331 metric tons) of plutonium.

Considering the immensity of Japan’s stockpile, this gesture does virtually nothing to mitigate the risk of nuclear terrorism presented by large quantities of weaponizable plutonium. Worsening matters, Japan intends to activate its own reprocessing plant in 2018, capable of producing an additional 8 tons of plutonium annually.

In contrast, China’s plutonium reprocessing ambitions are only now beginning to materialize into concrete plans. Recently, Beijing announced plans to accelerate the construction of its first reprocessing facility, in spite of its repeated criticism of the Japanese program. The plant, envisioned to produce a similar 8 tons of plutonium per year, is now set to begin construction in 2020 and come online in 2030.

Even as a nuclear weapons state, China’s current stockpile is significantly smaller than Japan’s—but the acceleration of the program represents an implied risk for nuclear terrorism and a future increase in China’s latent capacity for nuclear weapons. It also suggests that Japan’s reprocessing efforts have exacerbated regional tensions and produced a noticeable escalation in East Asian nuclear policies.

The third major East Asian power, South Korea, is not engaged in nuclear reprocessing and has not yet established plans to do so—but it is also represents the clearest link between reprocessing and nuclear weapons acquisition. For several years now, Seoul has increasingly demanded that the United States grant it legal consent to begin nuclear reprocessing under the U.S.-Korea nuclear agreement. In doing so, South Korea points to Japan for precedent, and argues that reprocessing is a necessary step in managing the waste from a growing nuclear power industry.

While this may be a genuine intention, it is also clear that South Korea’s interest in reprocessing coincides with North Korean nuclear tests. When North Korea conducted its second nuclear test in 2009, South Korea’s opposition party demanded the “nuclear sovereignty” to reprocess plutonium. After Pyongyang’s recent test in January, demands for reprocessing once again spiked, this time coming from within leading figures of the ruling party. In short, increasing South Korean interest in nuclear reprocessing not only presents heightened potential for nuclear terrorism, but also a more clear risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Regional risks beyond terrorism

Clearly, East Asia’s increasing pursuit of reprocessed plutonium presents increased risk of rogue non-state actors securing dangerous nuclear materials. That being said, the influence of ISIS and similar radicalized groups seeking radiological agents has remained generally weak in East Asia, and nuclear security procedures are improving in the region.

The greater risk comes from feedback loops and reactionary chains — when one nation escalates their pursuit of nuclear reprocessing, the others follow suit. China, Japan, and South Korea are imbued in lasting geopolitical anxieties, and the pursuit of these policies—regardless of intention—only facilitates an atmosphere of greater paranoia and instability. Although nuclear proliferation may not be the goal at present, a future plutonium build-up in East Asia would perpetuate the chance that the race to reprocessing transpires into a full-fledged nuclear arms race if relations begin to deteriorate.

More broadly, countries with budding nuclear energy programs in more terror-prone regions of the world—such as Turkey and Egypt—may feel justified in pursuing reprocessing as a result. Similarly, Iran could utilize the international allowance of plutonium production in East Asia as a cover for future attempts at atomic arms. The programs would also complicate multilateral discussions with North Korea on de-nuclearization, as concerned international entities would now appear hypocritical. With these risks made clear, there is little question that the hazards of East Asia’s growing interest in nuclear reprocessing far outweigh any benefit achieved in nuclear waste management.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Ian Armstrong

Ian Armstrong is Commissioning Editor and Senior Analyst at GRI. He also serves as the Geostrategy and Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Previously, Ian assisted in research at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Scottish Parliament, and Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, where he has focused on non-proliferation and international energy. Ian's analysis has been featured at prominent outlets such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Foreign Policy Association, CBS News, and RealClearEnergy.