Japan unveiled plans to grow its stockpile of plutonium in a turnaround just weeks after handing over its cache of weapons-grade plutonium to the United States.
The energy-starved nation plans to produce new stockpiles of the nuclear material as part of a recycling program. The program seeks to separate plutonium from used nuclear fuel so it can be reused to power the country’s reactors, and was expected to be approved by the cabinet as early as Friday.
The move is seen by proponents as a way of ensuring Japan more energy independence. Since the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Japan has shuttered all of its reactors and relied heavily on energy imports, but surging costs have caused more lawmakers to bring back atomic power into the country’s energy mix.
Adding to the tons of plutonium stored in Japan, this new stockpile would not be of weapons-grade material, but still poses a proliferation risk if the material were to fall into the wrong hands, experts said.
US officials have been quietly pressing Japan to halt production of large stocks of the material which are “an inviting target for terrorists to steal or attack.”
The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, where much of the plutonium is stored and where new plutonium will be extracted from spent fuel, is particularly vulnerable to attack, with only unarmed guards and lightly armed policemen standing between potential thieves.
The recycling program has been “one of the most contentious parts of the nation’s first comprehensive energy plan since the Fukushima nuclear disaster.”
Sumio Mabuchi, an opposition lawmaker who served as adviser to the government in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, slammed the plans as “hypocritical.”
“The government made a big deal out of returning several hundred kilograms of plutonium, but it brushes over the fact that Japan has so much more,” Mabuchi said.
More so, the plan is riling Japan’s Asian neighbors who are increasingly growing wary of the country’s increasing militarism and could further destabilize a region already mired in disputes over Asian islands and long-standing wartime issues.
But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and proponents of the program said the benefits from gaining energy security far outweigh the risks.
Image: “4.11 原発反対デモin高円寺 Anti nuclear power protests in Kouenji” by Matthias Lambrecht/Flickr