Monday, June 12, 2017

Japan Plutonium Overhang Origins and Dangers Debated by U.S. Officials


Proliferation Risks of Japanese Plutonium Surpluses Troubled U.S. Officials

Origins, Dangers of Japan’s Excess Supply Dates Back Decades, Forward to 2018

Controversy Continues Today Over Whether Reprocessing by Japan Should Continue 

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 587

Posted - June 8, 2017

Edited by William Burr

For more information contact
William Burr: 202/994-7000 and

Ambassador Gerard C. Smith, responsible for nonproliferation policy during the Carter administration, meeting with President Jimmy Carter, 24 October 1979.  Concerned about U.S.-Japan diplomatic relations, Smith wanted Japan to have more leeway in reprocessing spent nuclear reactor fuel so that it could develop fast breeder reactors, although some worried that that would lead to mounting plutonium surpluses (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

Washington, D.C., June 8, 2017 – Japan’s long-standing aspirations to develop a «plutonium economy» troubled U.S. officials going back decades as early as the Jimmy Carter administration, according to documents posted today by the nongovernmental National Security Archive at The George Washington University and the Nuclear Nonproliferation International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. 

The Japanese government appealed repeatedly in the late 1970s for authority to utilize American spent fuel for reactor experiments and for acceptance of the country’s right to resource self-sufficiency. Tokyo’s position sparked intense debate within the Carter administration, between those who wanted to avoid damaging ties with Japan and those – including the president – who placed a high priority on curbing the availability of sensitive nuclear technologies. Among the newly declassified documents in this e-book is a National Security Council memo expressing concern that the inevitable surplus from Japan’s desired processing plans would “more than swamp” global requirements and create a significant proliferation risk involving tons of excess plutonium by the year 2000. Indeed, as a result of reprocessing activities since then, Japan possesses 48 tons of plutonium and could be producing more, with no clearly defined use, when a new reprocessing facility goes on line in 2018, unless Washington and Tokyo renegotiate a nuclear agreement that expires that same year.

Today’s posting is part of a growing body of records being compiled by the National Security Archive’s Nuclear Vault that flesh out largely unknown aspects of the history of Japan’s nuclear program, and more generally the inherent dangers of proliferation of nuclear materials.

* * * * *

Japan’s Plutonium Overhang: Debates During the Carter Administration

By William Burr

Plutonium, a key element of nuclear weapons, has been an issue in U.S.-Japan relations for decades. During the administration of Jimmy Carter, the Japanese government pressed Washington for permission to process spent reactor fuel of U.S. origin so that the resulting plutonium could be used for experiments with fast breeder nuclear reactors. The government of Japan wanted to develop a “plutonium economy,” but U.S. government officials worried about the consequences of building plants to reprocess reactor fuel. According to a memo by National Security Council staffer Gerald Oplinger, published for the first time by the National Security Archive, the “projected plants would more than swamp the projected plutonium needs of all the breeder R&D programs in the world.” They “will produce a vast surplus of pure, weapons grade plutonium amounting to several hundred tons by the year 2000.” That stockpile “would constitute a danger in itself” and “it would eventually drive these nations, and those watching their example, into the recycle of plutonium in today's generation of reactors for economic reasons,” which the Carter White House saw as a waste of resources.

That the White House leaned against reprocessing spent nuclear reactor fuel frustrated the government of Japan, which saw (and still does) its energy future in using plutonium to fuel advanced reactors. By 1979, Gerard C. Smith, the president’s representative on nonproliferation policy, wanted Japan to be given leeway so it could reprocess without getting U.S. consent. Worried that Japan and other close allies perceived the United States as an “unreliable” nuclear supplier, Smith hoped to avoid “major damage” to the relationship with Tokyo. His initiative touched off debate within the Carter administration, evidence of which is published today by the National Security Archive.

The first Japanese reprocessing plant at Tokai Mura, which went on-line in January 1981 several years after it was the subject of a U.S.-Japan controversy over nuclear reprocessing policy (Photo taken in 1999, courtesy of Greenpeace

Today’s posting demonstrates how the Carter White House’s critical approach to plutonium reprocessing came under fire from within and outside the administration. Among the documents published are:

  • The record of a conversation between Smith and Minister of State for Science and Technology Iwazo Kaneko, who gave a fervent defense of a plutonium economy: given Japan’s energy needs, it was “essential … to make maximum use of plutonium, particularly in fast breeder ” While Japan had to take nonproliferation concerns into account at the same time it had “the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” 
  • A memorandum by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke supporting Smith’s position, arguing that a failure to change the U.S. approach to Japanese reprocessing “would suggest … that we are insensitive to their most basic security and economic requirement” and could “also open a fissure in our relationship with the most profound consequences for US interests.”
  • Memoranda by top advisers to Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, Leon Billings and Berl Bernhard, who raised questions about Gerard Smith’s motives. Billings advised Muskie to take into account “the bias of State Department negotiators,” especially Smith’s background as a “life-long nuclear power advocate” who sees “current resistance [to nuclear power] in this country as something which should be overcome.”
  • A critique of Smith’s proposal by Policy Planning Staff official Robert Gallucci, who argued that it was a mistake to assume that a move toward plutonium breeder reactors was inevitable.
  • “There is still no accepted way to have breeders without having fuel loadings which would each contain enough plutonium to fabricate hundreds of nuclear weapons.”
  • A report by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo on a report by the Japanese Atomic Energy Research Institute, which concluded that Japan did not need the second reprocessing plant. According to White House commentary on the report, it was “something of a bombshell” by providing “confirmation we have yet seen of the basic premises underlying the President's 1977 policies: that the need for large scale reprocessing and commercial use of plutonium remains distant and uncertain.”

The risk of nuclear of proliferation was a significant element in Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, which raised questions about the hazards of nuclear energy and attacked the Ford administration for ignoring the “deadly threat posed by plutonium in the hands of terrorists.” Not long after his inauguration, Carter signed Presidential Directive 8, which declared that “U.S. non-proliferation policy shall be directed at preventing the development and use of sensitive nuclear power technologies which involve direct access to plutonium, highly enriched uranium, or other weapons useable material in non-nuclear weapons states, and at minimizing the global accumulation of these materials.” Consistent with this, Carter called for an indefinite deferral of commercial reprocessing and the recycle of plutonium in the U.S. and restructuring U.S. breeder reactor programs to develop “alternative designs to the plutonium breeder.” He also directed U.S. nuclear R&D spending to focus on the “development of alternative nuclear fuel cycles which do not involve access to weapons useable materials.” [i]

Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, who presided over the latest U.S. government internal debate over reprocessing policy during the summer of 1980.  Photograph taken during State Department farewell event at the end of the Carter administration (U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Unit, RG 59-SE, box 8)

To develop an international consensus on those ideas, Carter called for an International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) program, which partly aimed at promoting “alternative, non-sensitive, nuclear fuel cycles.” That goal and the critical approach toward reprocessing were complex diplomatically because, as noted, key allies such as Japan were committed to the goal of a “plutonium economy.” The 1974 Indian nuclear test had made Washington more sensitive to the proliferation risk of reprocessing, which dismayed the Japanese because Washington had formerly encouraged reprocessing. At Tokai Mura village, Tokyo was completing a facility that it would use for reprocessing U.S.-supplied reactor fuel. An earlier nuclear energy agreement with Japan provided the Carter White House with leverage over Japan’s reprocessing plans; nevertheless, Carter recognized that Washington could not “impose [its] will.” He avoided diplomatic tensions by approving a compromise permitting reprocessing at Tokai Mura village. The Japanese planned on going further by building a large plant for commercial reprocessing.

The compromise on Tokai Mura notwithstanding, Carter’s nonproliferation policy continued to rankle Tokyo, especially with the passage of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act (1978). Criticizing the NNPA, Ryukichi Imai, a leading figure in the Japanese nuclear industry [See Document 4], said that “The United States no longer can impose upon the world its version of truth, but, by attempting to do so, it can cause enormous disturbances.” The Act called for the renegotiation of earlier bilateral nuclear energy agreements, but what especially bothered Tokyo was that it prohibited reprocessing of U.S. supplied fuel without U.S. approval. That strengthened the so-called “MB [Material Balance]-10” procedure that Washington had been following for years with respect to Japanese shipments of spent fuel for reprocessing in France and the United Kingdom. It was this procedure that Gerard Smith wanted so that Japan would not have to ask for permission routinely.[ii]

An important theme of early Carter administration diplomacy, one that was central to Smith’s thinking, was “trilateralism.” Smith was, with Zbigniew Brzezinski and David Rockefeller, one of the founding fathers of the Trilateral Commission, formed in the early 1970s in order to enhance U.S. relations with Japan and the European Community. Like his colleagues, Smith worried about the impact of the 1971 “Nixon shocks” on Japan and Western Europe and sought to strengthen post-World War II multilateralism to prevent the kind of political and economic rivalries that had destabilized international relations during the 1930s. Trilateralists also worried about divisions that could weaken the West in the face of Soviet and Third World challenges. For the Carter administration, these goals proved difficult in practice and relations with trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific allies were rocky.[iii] Nevertheless, the trilateral frame of mind made Smith sensitive to the concerns of Washington’s Japanese and Western European partners about nuclear energy issues, believing that failure to take a sympathetic approach could have an adverse diplomatic impact.

The international fuel cycle conference that Carter sought led to a number of international meetings during 1978 and 1979, but it did not arrive at the alternatives to reprocessing plutonium that the White House had sought. Owing to divisions among the nuclear states and developing countries seeking broad scope in developing fuel cycles, the INFCE did not rank the various nuclear fuel cycles according to the proliferation risk that they posed; nor did it find any technical means to eliminate or reduce the proliferation risks involved in reprocessing. Nor did it produce an across-the-board acceptance of the U.S. view that thermal recycling (the use of plutonium as reactor fuel) was economically disadvantageous. Moreover, some countries, such as Japan and France wanted the U.S. to make decisions that had been deferred while the INFCE was conferred, such as on the reprocessing of U.S.-origin fuel.[iv]

Catching up with the deferred decisions, among other issues, gave Smith an opportunity to suggest policy changes aimed at mitigating Japanese and Western European concerns. During the summer of 1980, with Carter’s approval, Smith held discussions with Japanese and West European nuclear energy officials, but the administration’s defeat in November meant that his agenda could not produce any results. Nevertheless, what Smith sought foreshadowed developments during the Reagan administration, which in 1987 reached an agreement, approved by Congress the next year, that gave Japan “comprehensive advanced consent” to reprocess. Tokyo could go forward with plans, still unrealized, to develop breeder reactors fueled with plutonium. CAC was an important concession and was controversial in the United States owing to concerns about political and environmental hazards of plutonium storage and transport. The internal Reagan administration record of the negotiations with Japan remains classified but is the subject of ongoing declassification requesting by the National Security Archive

The controversial Japanese reprocessing facility at Rokkasho, scheduled to go on-line in 2018. If it goes into production, its will be producing reactor-grade plutonium that has no programmed use.

Since the 1988 agreement Japan’s nuclear plans have gone awry. The Fukushima disaster raised questions about nuclear energy as a power source while the Monju fast breeder reactor turned out to be a tremendously expensive boondoggle, which the Japanese government decided to decommission in late 2016 (during more than 20 years it operated only 250 days). The government remains interested in developing plutonium-fueled fast reactors but that is a remote prospect. Plans to use plutonium in a mixed oxide (MOX) reactor fuel have come to naught. At present, therefore, Japan has no clearly defined use for the 48 tons of separated plutonium that it owns, some 11 tons of which are on Japanese territory.[v] The surpluses, which emerged as anticipated, continue to worry arms control experts, including some, such as Robert Gallucci, who were involved in the 1980 debate.[vi]Terrorists would need only a few kilograms of plutonium for a weapon with mass destruction potential. In the meantime, the Rokkasho reprocessing facility is scheduled to go on-line in 2018.[vii] The industrial scale facility is slated to separate 8 tons of plutonium maximum annually, although Japan has no specific plans for using most of it. 2018 is the same year that the 1988 U.S.-Japan agreement is slated to expire, although whether the Trump administration has any interest in renegotiating it remains to be seen.[viii] Meanwhile, the South Korean government, which cannot reprocess, under existing agreements with Washington, asks why it cannot do what Japan has been doing.

When NSC staffer Gerald Oplinger wrote that the plutonium surplus would constitute a “danger in itself,” he probably assumed an environmental hazard and possibly a proliferation risk and vulnerability to terrorism. He did not mention the latter risks, although the reference to surpluses of “weapons grade” material evoked such concerns. While Japanese reprocessing plants would be producing reactor-grade plutonium, it nevertheless has significant weapons potential.[ix] On the question of Japan’s nuclear intentions, the documents from this period that have been seen by the editor are silent; it is not clear whether U.S. officials wondered whether elements of the government of Japan had a weapons option in the back of their mind. Any such U.S. speculation, however, would have had to take into account strong Japanese anti-nuclear sentiment, rooted in terrible historical experience, Japan’s membership in good standing in the nonproliferation community, and that since the days of Prime Minister Sato, the “three Nos” have been official national policy: no possession, no manufacture, and no allowing nuclear weapons on Japanese territory.[x] According to a 1974 national intelligence estimate, Japan was keeping “open” the possibility of a weapons capability and had the resources to produce weapons in a few years, but the intelligence agencies were divided over the likelihood of such a development. The CIA, State Department intelligence, and Army intelligence saw such a course of action as highly unlikely without a collapse of U.S. security guarantees and the emergence of a significant threat to Japan’s security.[xi]

Sources for this posting including State Department FOIA releases as well as recently declassified records at the National Archives, including the records of Gerard C. Smith and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie. Many documents on Japan from the Smith files are awaiting declassification review.


Document Document 01
Louis Nozenzo, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Department of State, to Joseph Nye et al., enclosing paper on "U.S. Policy on Foreign Reprocessing," 24 January 1977, Confidential

Source: State Department Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) release

Even before President Carter came to office, the outgoing Ford administration had been sending strong signals that the United States was no longer taking a business-as-usual approach to plutonium. The Carter White House was about to take an even tougher angle: a "go-slow attitude ... toward a reprocessing/plutonium economy and a desire to have other industrialized economies follow a similar course." For government policy experts, nuclear operations that produced plutonium as a byproduct were not inherently "safeguardable" and the danger was "withdrawal from or abrogation of safeguards agreements and political commitments and also terrorist action which no system of technical safeguards can prevent." Thus, proposals to stockpile plutonium as fuel for experimental breeder reactors were inconsistent with nonproliferation and safety objectives. Questioning economic, environmental, and other arguments that had been used to justify reprocessing, Nozenzo, like others in the administration, supported an international evaluation program to determine its worth.

Noting Japan's intent to begin operations at the Tokai Mura reprocessing plant, Nozenzo recommended a joint U.S.-Japanese test program for the application of new ground rules, for example, by assuring U.S. custody of "strategic quantities" of plutonium. As for Japanese plans for a larger scale commercial reprocessing plant, Washington needs to "convince them to delay those plans pending the results of the U.S. evaluation program."

Document Document 02
Patsy Mink, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, to Deputy Secretary of State, "PRC Meeting on PRM-15 Response," 15 March 1977, Confidential

Source: State Department FOIA release

A Presidential Review Memorandum requested agency views on a number of proliferation matters. A report had been drawn up but the issues were still under consideration. With respect to processing, the State Department and other agencies agreed on the need for a "fuel cycle evaluation program to investigate ways of avoiding or minimizing the problems associated with the presence of separated plutonium." With respect to reprocessing in the United States, the State Department believed "that our domestic program, more than any other element, will convey a signal to other countries concerning our intent to avoid or proceed with reprocessing, that there is no economic need for the US to proceed now."

Document Document 03
Patsy Mink, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, to Deputy Secretary of State, "State Department Views on the Partial Response to PD-8," 5 April 1977, with attached memorandum from Warren Christopher to President Carter, "Nuclear Reprocessing Discussions with Japan" attached, Secret 

Source: State Department mandatory declassification review (MDR) release

Following up the responses to PRM-15 with a directive, PD-8

President Carter instructed the agencies to "seek a pause among all nations in sensitive nuclear developments in order to initiate and actively participate in, an intensive international nuclear fuel cycle re-evaluation program (IFCEP) whose technical aspects shall concern the development and promotion of alternative, non-sensitive, nuclear fuel cycles. This program will include both nuclear supplier and recipient nations." As part of the pause, the United States Government would "indefinitely defer the commercial reprocessing and recycle of plutonium in the U.S."

Recognizing that a number of close allies, including France, West Germany, and Japan, had a strong interest in reprocessing, State Department officials believed that Washington "must take account of these concerns while moving toward our objectives of finding alternatives to a plutonium economy and minimizing the global accumulation of weapons usable material." On Japan, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher observed that "Right wing elements in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and conservative business groups in Japan are strident on" the Tokai Mura reprocessing plant and that Japanese public opinion saw U.S. opposition as a denial of energy self-sufficiency to "resource-poor Japan." Therefore, Washington needed "to proceed in a manner which will not seem to present the Japanese with a fait accompli or foreclose possibilities for further discussion."

Document Document 04
Memorandum of conversation, "Non-Proliferation and Reprocessing in Japan," 14 April 1977, Confidential, with "Possible Basis of Japan-US Understanding of Nuclear Fuel Cycle", 15 April 1977, attached

Source: U.S. National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records [RG 59]. Subject Files of Ambassador at Large and Representative of the United States to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Gerard C. Smith [Smith records], box 17, Tokai Mura Agreement 9/12/1977

During this discussion, Ryukichi Imai, a senior official with Japan Atomic Power Company and an adviser to the Foreign Ministry (and later career ambassador and academic), laid out Japan's basic nuclear energy objectives. Acknowledging that "in the present situation [plutonium] is not an economic fuel" and that the "near-term commercialization of plutonium technology is neither possible nor necessary," nevertheless, he wanted the U.S. to recognize that "plutonium technology remains important." Moreover, "its extraction, handling and burning should be the continued subject of Japanese research and development activities." Such activity should be limited to the US, the Soviet Union, the European Community, and Japan.

The Japanese perspective worried U.S. officials, not only for its "frankly discriminatory" approach, but also because of its inconsistency with U.S. policy, which was to "take every reasonable step to avoid setting a precedent for the reprocessing of spent fuel for recycle purposes." To reconcile the differences, the discussants agreed to underscore U.S.-Japanese cooperation so as not to prejudice President Carter's nonproliferation policy and [set] "unfavorable precedents." Moreover, they agreed it was important to address Japan's domestic political problems and energy needs and to "explore means ... to make the Tokai facility an effective and constructive element in an international nuclear fuel cycle evaluation."

Document Document 05
Memorandum from Ambassador-at-Large and Special Representative for Non-Proliferation Matters Gerard C. Smith, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard Holbrooke, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science, and Technology Joseph Nye to the Secretary of State, "Options Paper to the President on the Japanese Nuclear Reprocessing Facility," 30 July 1977, Confidential

Source: Smith records, box 17, Tokai Mura Agreement 9/12/1977

With Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda seeing Japan's nuclear energy goals as "life and death" matters, President Carter agreed to a compromise on starting up the Tokai Mura reprocessing plant without backtracking on his objective of avoiding hasty reprocessing and plutonium stockpiling. When negotiations began during the summer of 1977, State Department officials developed three options. One was the experimental operation of the plant as a "test-bed" for an IAEA safeguards program. The second was reprocessing with a limited amount of irradiated fuel, with Japanese agreement to begin a major experiment in "co-processing," a blend of plutonium and uranium that could be used to operate light water reactors, but not to fuel a weapon. The third option required the modification of Tokai so that it could "perform only experimental work on coprocessing." While the Japanese disliked that option because it meant a delayed a start-up for Tokai Mura, Carter had suggested it because it would avoid the further spread of reprocessing.

The State Department recommended option 2 precisely because it would enable the Japanese to begin reprocessing while requiring them to experiment with an alternative. Carter approved that option and Smith, recently appointed as the administration's nonproliferation ambassador-at large, went to Tokyo to negotiate the final agreement.

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