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Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2005

Rokkasho drawing proliferation flak

Multinational controls urged to deter nuclear arms-seeking copycats

Staff writer

OSAKA -- As Japan moves forward with plans to conduct further uranium tests in the near future at the Rokkasho nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture in preparation for full operations in 2007, it faces growing pressure from the international community to give up some control of the process.

Without a multilateral agreement, experts warn, Rokkasho will serve as an excuse for other nonnuclear states to build their own national nuclear fuel cycle programs, thus increasing proliferation risks worldwide.

The Rokkasho reprocessing plant, operated by Japan Nuclear Fuels Ltd., will be able to reprocess 800 tons of spent uranium fuel annually from Japan's 52 nuclear reactors. Up to 8 tons of plutonium per year will be created as a result.

When the plant goes into operation, Japan will become the world's only nonnuclear weapons state to be operating a facility that could reportedly separate enough plutonium to make 1,000 nuclear weapons a year.

A letter released in May through the Union of Concerned Scientists and signed by four Nobel Prize winners in physics, two former U.S. secretaries of defense and several former senior arms control negotiators, warned that Rokkasho's operations would raise serious concerns about Japan's commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The letter called on Japan to postpone indefinitely the reprocessing plant's operations as well as tests of the facility with radioactive materials.

"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," it said.

Concerns over Rokkasho are shared by many within the International Atomic Energy Agency, but there is great debate within the agency and internationally as to what should be done.

Earlier this year, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei called for a five-year moratorium on the construction of new uranium enrichment and reprocessing facilities.

ElBaradei hopes to eventually place those facilities under a series of multilateral arrangements that would lead to greater transparency and reduce the risk of material being diverted, possibly to make nuclear arms.

At a United Nations conference on disarmament in Kyoto in August, Tariq Rauf, IAEA head of verification and security policy coordination, presented proposals on the issue.

"Among the most important approaches were to develop international nuclear fuel supply guarantees and creating multinational and regional agreements," Rauf said.

Simply put, this means those countries wishing to build nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities would give up certain rights of ownership and the facilities would be placed under joint ownership or comanagement, while a guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel for reactors would be provided through an IAEA mandated program.

Pronuclear experts who support the idea of multilateral agreements urge Japan to accept the multilateral control over Rokkasho.

"Multilateral control means every country with a reprocessing plant has to give up a degree of sovereignty," A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, told The Japan Times in September.

Calls for a moratorium and some form of multilateral agreement made by Shinichi Ogawa, director of research at the National Institute for Defense Studies, and Michael Schiffer, a visiting research fellow at the institute, in an article in the October issue of Arms Control Today have created consternation within Japan's nuclear power lobby.

"Such a proposal places Japan's plans for an independent nuclear fuel cycle in jeopardy. Needless to say, it is not popular among senior Japanese officials," wrote Ogawa and Schiffer.

The key question is whether the IAEA would consider Rokkasho a "new" facility and thus fall under the framework for IAEA discussions on multilateral agreements for new reprocessing facilities. Nowhere in its lengthy report on multilateral nuclear agreements is Rokkasho named.

Construction of the reprocessing plant is all but complete. But JNFL announced Nov. 4 that the spring 2007 start of operations would probably be delayed due to operational problems.

The announcement has fueled the argument that Rokkasho should be regarded as a new facility since it has not yet come on line.

Shunsuke Kondo, head of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission, has argued that Rokkasho is exempt from any future IAEA multilateral agreements.

"ElBaradei proposed to put 'a five-year hold on additional facilities for uranium enrichment and plutonium separation,' saying 'there is no compelling reason to build more of these facilities,' " Kondo said.

"The keywords in that statement are 'additional' and 'to build more of.' It is generally recognized that the Rokkasho reprocessing plant is an existing facility and not a part of additional facilities to be built for adding capacity," he said.

Though the issue of multilateral controls on reprocessing facilities was widely expected to be raised at an IAEA meeting in September, IAEA spokeswoman Kirstei Hansen said that was not on the official agenda and talks mainly dealt with strengthening international safeguards.

To deflect the growing international pressure to stop or delay Rokkasho for the sake of nonproliferation, Japanese officials are stressing the nation's past record of openness and transparency with the IAEA.

Rokkasho can serve as a model case for the IAEA and other nations seeking to build reprocessing plants, they say.

Masahiro Nakajima, a spokesman for JNFL, declined comment, saying the issue of multinational control carries domestic and international implications.

"However, we will continue to work with the IAEA to find ways to strengthen the safeguards regime," he said.

But Hideyuki Ban, codirector of the Tokyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, said the only way Japan can remove the international controversy over Rokkasho is to abandon it completely.

"The government wants Japan to be recognized as a model of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. It would gain far more respect if it chose not to proceed with reprocessing at Rokkasho," Ban said. "The world would then believe that Japan is truly committed to nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament."

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