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Japan: Strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty

A Call on Japan to Strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty by Indefinitely Postponing Operation of the Rokkasho Spent Fuel Reprocessing Plant

May 5, 2005

Minimizing worldwide stockpiles of weapons usable fissile materials—highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium—should be a high priority for the international community. Doing so would promote nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, and help prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet Japan is about to join several nuclear-weapon states as a producer of separated plutonium on an industrial scale. At a time when the nonproliferation regime is facing its greatest challenge, Japan should not proceed with its current plans for the start-up of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant.

The official nuclear-weapon states under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China) have all halted their production of plutonium for weapons, and their production of HEU for any purpose. However, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and India continue to separate plutonium on a large scale from civil nuclear power reactor spent fuel.
As a result of this activity, there continues to be a steady increase in the world stockpile of separated civilian plutonium, which stood at 235 metric tons at the end of 2003. This amount of reactor-grade plutonium is enough to make 30,000 nuclear weapons, each with a destructive power comparable to that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Despite assertions to the contrary, terrorists could use civil plutonium to make potent nuclear weapons with a destructive power equivalent to at least 1,000 tons of TNT.

Many countries, including Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, have decided to end the separation of plutonium from spent fuel for the foreseeable future. Even the United Kingdom, previously one of the principal enthusiasts, is likely to end all reprocessing within the next few years because of the decline in foreign and domestic interest. Indeed, respected voices within Britain have warned of the dangers from Britain's growing stockpile of separated plutonium. Perhaps most notably, in 1998, Britain's Royal Society warned that, even in stable Britain, "the chance that the stocks of plutonium might, at some stage, be accessed for illicit weapons production is of extreme concern."(1) 

On December 1, 1997, Japan stated that its nuclear fuel cycle is based on "the principle of no surplus plutonium".(2)  However, by the end of 2003 Japan's total plutonium stockpile had grown from 24.1 to 40.6 metric tons—enough for some 5,000 nuclear weapons (some 5.4 metric tons are currently in Japan, and the rest is held for Japan at the French and British reprocessing plants).(3)

Despite the existence of this huge plutonium stockpile, Japan's nuclear utilities plan to begin commercial operation of a new spent fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho-mura in 2007, and to test the plant using spent nuclear fuel beginning in December 2005.

Operating at its design capacity, the Rokkasho plant will separate approximately 8 metric tons of plutonium per year, enough to make 1,000 bombs. The operation of the Rokkasho plant would greatly increase Japan's domestic plutonium stockpile and postpone for years Japan's achievement of its stated goal of "no surplus plutonium." Ultimately, Rokkasho's operation in the face of large Japanese stocks of surplus plutonium would raise serious concerns about Japan's commitment to strengthening the NPT.

Because the Rokkasho plant is the first industrial-scale reprocessing plant in a country not possessing nuclear weapons, its planned operation could also undermine international efforts to discourage other countries—including Iran and North Korea—from building their own reprocessing and enrichment facilities. 

Japan has shown great wisdom in not joining the "club" of nuclear-weapon states. We urge it to show equal leadership in deciding not to add to the accumulation of excess stocks of separated civilian plutonium. Accordingly, on the occasion of the 2005 NPT Review Conference, we call on Japan to postpone indefinitely the operation of its Rokkasho reprocessing plant, as well as tests of the facility with radioactive materials.

Peter Bradford
Former Commissioner, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

George Bunn
Consulting Professor, Stanford Institute for International Studies
Deputy Chief and Counsel of U.S. delegation, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
Former U.S. Ambassador to Geneva Disarmament Conference

Ashton Carter
Harvard University
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy

Ambassador (ret.) Ralph Earle II
Chief U.S. Negotiator, SALT II Treaty
Former Director, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency

Steve Fetter
Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland

Jerome I. Friedman
Institute Professor and Professor of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Nobel Laureate in Physics

Richard L. Garwin
Adjunct Professor of Physics, Columbia University
National Medal of Science Laureate
Member, National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering

Sheldon Lee Glashow
Arthur G.B. Metcalf Professor of the Sciences, Boston University
Nobel Laureate in Physics

Marvin L. Goldberger
President Emeritus, California Institute of Technology

Rose Gottemoeller
Senior Associate, Global Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Former Deputy Undersecretary for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, U.S. Department of Energy

Kurt Gottfried
Professor of Physics Emeritus, Cornell University
Chair of the Board, Union of Concerned Scientists

Selig S. Harrison
Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

John P. Holdren
Professor, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Former Chair, Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences

Raymond Jeanloz
Professor of Geophysics, University of California, Berkeley

Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.
Former Deputy Director, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency

Leon Lederman
Professor of Science, Illinois Institute of Technology
Nobel Laureate in Physics

Robert S. McNamara
Former Secretary of Defense

Marvin Miller
Senior Scientist Emeritus, Center for International Studies
and Nuclear Engineering Department, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Albert Narath
Director Emeritus, Sandia National Laboratories

William J. Perry
Stanford University
19th U.S. Secretary of Defense

Henry S. Rowen
Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense, 1989-1991

Andrew M. Sessler
Director Emeritus, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Henry D. Sokolski
Executive Director, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center
Deputy for nonproliferation policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1989-1993

Leonard S. Spector
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, U.S. Department of Energy

John D. Steinbruner
Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland
Director, Center for International and Security Studies, University of Maryland

Frank von Hippel
Professor of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

Steven Weinberg
Jack S. Josey-Welch Foundation Chair in Science; Professor of Physics, University of Texas - Austin
Nobel Laureate in Physics

Herbert York
Director Emeritus, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

(1) Management of Separated Plutonium (London, The Royal Society, 1998), Summary.
(2)  International Atomic Energy Agency, Communication Received from Certain Member States Concerning their Policies Regarding the Management of Plutonium, INFCIRC/549/Add. 1, 31 March 1998. Available at (accessed March 14, 2005).
(3) International Atomic Energy Agency, Communication Received from Japan Concerning Its Policies Regarding the Management of Plutonium, INFCIRC/549/Add. 1/7, 23 December 2004. Available at (accessed April 20, 2005).

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