After North Korea’s Nuclear Test
Time to slow the nuclear dominoes elsewhere in East Asia.

South Koreans protest the latest nuclear tests in North Korea, February 12, 2013.


Henry Sokolski

As nuclear experts sift over data being collected on North Korea’s third nuclear-weapons test, the White House appears ready to bless South Korean and Japanese efforts to recycle reactor fuel the U.S. has sold them, enabling both nations to edge further toward development of their own nuclear-weapons options. These “peaceful,” “civilian” efforts will be rationalized as being necessary to promote nuclear power, but in fact, they constitute little more than short-sighted ploys to address rising regional security and alliance tensions in East Asia — nuclear tricks that could quite literally blow up in our face.

Rather than support Tokyo’s and Seoul’s cravings to develop nuclear-weapons options — appetites that are sure to spike even higher now with North Korea’s test explosion — the United States should use its still-considerable influence to ensure nonproliferation and strategic security in the region. How? By having President Obama endorse Gerald Ford’s, Jimmy Carter’s, and George W. Bush’s pronouncements that plutonium recycling is unnecessary to promote nuclear power, and by publicly calling on China — the real driver of nuclear angst in the region — to join the United States and Russia in any further nuclear-weapons-reduction effort.

With President Obama’s direct involvement, Washington could accomplish this — assuming, of course, he has the will and gets proper advice. Unfortunately, so far, he’s gotten just the opposite. As for the will, time will tell.

Last fall, Obama’s nuclear-energy advisers at the Department of Energy urged Japan to preserve its programs to recycle weapons-usable plutonium from spent reactor fuel that the U.S. originally sold it. Japan has been building a $27 billion reprocessing plant at Rokkasho for decades now. Although it is supposed to come on line the end of 2013, this plant’s lifetime operational costs — well over $100 billion — will run far, far higher than the cost of simply putting Japan’s spent fuel in available dry-storage casks.

But there’s a far greater problem with this program than its being wildly uneconomic: It is dangerously half-baked. The Rokkasho plant will produce eight tons of weapons-usable plutonium each year (enough for 1,000 to 2,000 Nagasaki-size bombs) at a time when Japan has no nuclear reactors to burn the material. Its experimental breeder at Monju has experienced a string of accidents; it’s currently out of operation. Meanwhile, all of Japan’s conventional reactors that might burn some of this material are unlikely to start back up anytime soon. If Rokkasho operates as planned, the weapons-usable plutonium in Japan will pile up as it never has before.

For all these reasons, the best of Japan’s nuclear experts have called on Japan to reconsider its current plutonium-recycling program. But U.S. Department of Energy officials, worried that their own dreams of developing plutonium-burning fast reactors in the U.S. might suffer if Japan dropped its programs, have been urging Tokyo to stay the course.

One of the most cynical (or poorly informed?) arguments U.S. officials have made is that Japan must keep its promise to burn the plutonium in planned breeder and conventional reactors or risk breaking its promise to use the plutonium for peaceful purposes. Meanwhile, an increasing number of Japanese commentators and political figures have openly argued that Japan should continue its plutonium program as a national-security hedge against North Korean and Chinese nuclear-weapons activities. Late last year, Japan’s Diet (parliament) even amended Japan’s atomic-energy act to explicitly include “national security” as one of the prime missions of Japan’s civilian nuclear-energy program.

None of this has sat well with South Korea, a close U.S. security ally that bemoans the American policy of encouraging Japan to recycle U.S.-origin spent fuel while prohibiting Seoul from doing the same. Even though South Korea tried to divert weapons-grade plutonium from its nuclear-power program in the 1970s, and in the early 1980s experimented with making nuclear fuels in violation of the International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear-safeguards agreement, three decades later, Seoul wonders why it should still not be trusted. It worries because it is now sandwiched between three nuclear-arming nations: North Korea, China, and Japan. Its public officials and editorial writers wonder aloud why South Korea should not be allowed to develop nuclear-weapons options similar to those that Japan is pursuing.

Complicating this picture further, China is contemplating building a large “peaceful” commercial reprocessing plant of its own, to be conveniently located alongside one of its major nuclear-weapons-production sites in Jianyuguan. China has chosen to keep its neighbors guessing as to how many nuclear weapons it has or is planning to acquire.

What’s likely now that North Korea has tested its third nuclear weapon? At a minimum, the U.S. will try to close ranks even further with Seoul. Although entirely warranted, this could spell nuclear trouble. Seoul and Washington officials have been focused on renegotiating a civilian nuclear-cooperative agreement with the U.S. before it terminates in early 2014. Seoul has been demanding that Washington allow it to recycle plutonium-based fuels from reactor fuel America has sold it since the 1970s. Such fuel making, which the U.S. has already allowed Japan to engage in, would bring Seoul to the brink of nuclear-bomb making. This, in turn, would only further egg on Japan to maintain its program, and would give China cause to step up its own nuclear-weapons activities. None of the endings here are happy.