By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow
Japan’s new energy plan sets ambitious nuclear goals, includes plutonium recycling—but may be impractical
On Tuesday, July 3, Japan’s Cabinet approved an energy plan that reaffirms the goal of having nuclear energy account for 20 to 22 percent of Japan’s electricity generation by fiscal year 2030. Experts have argued that this objective is not achievable in Japan, where more stringent reactor safety standards introduced after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 have led to some utilities companies opting to shut down older reactors rather than invest in the necessary modifications to meet current standards. 19 reactors have been shut down or slated for shutdown since the disaster, leaving 35 usable reactors in Japan.
Japan’s new energy plan also touches on an issue that has received renewed attention in the last month: the future of Japan’s plutonium stockpile. The plan acknowledges for the first time the need to reduce the overall plutonium stockpile in response to international security concerns. To do so, the plan reaffirms Japan’s long-standing intention to recycle plutonium as reactor fuel.
However, it is unclear whether Japan would actually be able to reduce its plutonium stockpile in the short term via plutonium recycling. Plutonium-based fuel can only be used in certain types of nuclear reactors, and Japan’s first effort at a plutonium-burning reactor (Monju) has been unsuccessful and was ultimately discarded. Japan is seeking to develop a replacement for the failed Monju reactor, but nonproliferation experts will likely have concerns about a Japanese plan for plutonium stockpile reduction that relies on thus-far-nonexistent reactors to burn plutonium as fuel.
The newly approved energy plan does not offer a timeline or any further details on how Japan will reduce its plutonium stockpile. Despite this, Japan’s energy minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters that the plan “makes clearer [Japan’s] commitment to reducing the amount” of plutonium in its stockpile.
U.S.-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement remains in effect after mid-July deadline
Japan’s new energy plan was released just a short time before a key mid-July deadline for a nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and Japan. Because the deadline passed with neither party seeking to review the agreement, it will remain in effect moving forward, although either party can terminate the agreement with six months’ notice.
The agreement, which entered into force in 1988, allows for bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation between the United States and Japan. Such civilian nuclear cooperation agreements in the United States are called “123 agreements,” named for the section number of the law that defines them. The 123 agreement with Japan is unusual in that it authorizes Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Because reprocessing spent fuel can produce plutonium for use in a nuclear weapon, it is one of the key weapons proliferation risks in the nuclear fuel cycle. Japan is the only non-nuclear weapon state authorized by a U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement to reprocess its nuclear fuel.
Days after Helsinki summit, Russia tests new nuclear weapons systems
According to reporting by the Associated Press and CNN, on Thursday, July 19, the Russian military announced that it was conducting tests of a variety of new weapons, including several nuclear weapons systems. The announcement came just three days after President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Helsinki.
The tests were publicized by the Russian government, which uploaded video footage of some tests to YouTube and ran several stories via the state-run TASS news agency. The systems that were tested and profiled in YouTube videos (linked here) include the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, the Avangard hypersonic missile system, the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Kinzhal hypersonic missile, and the Poseidon underwater drone.
Russia’s initial sea tests of the Poseidon underwater drone were also reported in the Diplomat. The nuclear-capable underwater drone is claimed to be designed to carry a staggering 2-megaton nuclear warhead, capable of destroying an entire naval base or coastal city, at intercontinental ranges. (For reference, a 2 megaton bomb would be over 100 times larger than the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.) The sea trials are reportedly focused on testing the drone’s guidance system and its ability to conduct underwater operations in autonomous mode. Russia’s Ministry of Defense indicated that its development is progressing according to schedule.
Indian Navy set to deliver nuclear missile-tracking ship by December 2018
According to reporting in the Indian publication Economic Times, India’s efforts to acquire a missile-tracking ship are on track to deliver the ship this December. Once online, the VC11184 Ocean Surveillance Ship will play an important role in India’s evolving missile defense strategy.
The VC11184 was first ordered over four years ago, when the Indian government began focusing on developing a “nuclear missile shield” for the country, according to the Economic Times. The ship is currently undergoing harbor trials, and is next slated to be tested at sea, with tests focusing on its specialized surveillance sensors. The ship is expected to play multiple roles in India’s navy, including the detection and tracking of any enemy missile launches, as well as collecting data on Indian strategic missile tests.
With Saudi Arabia seeking nuclear energy cooperation, Israel issues demands to the United States
For the last few years, Saudi Arabian leaders says that they have been taking steps towards developing a nuclear power program to reduce the domestic usage of oil for electricity production. However, Saudi Arabia’s repeated indications that they wish to reserve the right to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel has raised concerns since those technologies pose a nuclear weapons proliferation risk. Israel is among the countries expressing concerns about the potential Saudi nuclear program.
In early July, Axios reported that Israel had presented the United States with “red lines” for potential U.S. nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia. According to an unnamed senior Israeli official cited in the report, Israel requested a “no surprises policy” regarding negotiations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The demands included advance notice of what equipment the United States would be willing sell to the Saudis; consultations on possible reactor sites; prohibition and prevention of fuel enrichment or reprocessing within Saudi Arabia; and a guarantee that the United States be the only nation to provide fuel for the Saudi nuclear reactors.
According to the Axios report, the red lines were presented to Energy Secretary Rick Perry by Israeli energy minister Yuval Steinitz, and Perry said that the United States would “take Israeli concerns into consideration.” The talks are likely to resume when Perry visits Israel in October.
It is worth noting, however, that it’s not a given that the Saudi nuclear deal will involve the United States at all. Legally, Saudi Arabia will need to sign a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States if it wishes to use nuclear technology or components imported from the United States in its reactors, which is likely to be necessary even if the contracts are awarded to a non-U.S. company. However, certain reactor designs can be constructed without needing any parts from the United States, thereby eliminating the requirement to sign a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. As analysts have pointed out, South Korea has a small modular reactor design that can be built without U.S. components, and Saudi Arabia has shown significant interest in that design — in fact, Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korea back in 2011. So there’s certainly a possibility that the United States will be totally uninvolved with the Saudi nuclear program, rendering Israel’s red lines meaningless.