THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Japan plans to turn over to the United States more than 700 pounds of weapons grade plutonium and a supply of highly-enriched uranium, a victory for President Barack Obama’s efforts to secure nuclear materials around the world.
American and Japanese officials confirmed the plan Monday, ahead of a formal announcement at a Nuclear Security Summit set to get underway in the Netherlands.
A Japanese foreign ministry official said the two countries had been discussing the transfer for some time as part of efforts to resolve concerns over Japan’s large stockpile of spent nuclear fuel and plutonium. The U.S. and Japan also are discussing ways to reduce the quantity and toxicity of the radioactive material, the official said.
The material designated for transfer to the U.S. has been kept for decades at a research reactor site in Tokaimura, the site of a 1999 accident that killed two workers who mishandled a highly enriched uranium solution. More than 300 people were believed to have been exposed to radiation exceeding the annual limit after a nuclear chain reaction that lasted for 20 hours, leaking radioactive gasses out of the complex.
Despite its international pledge not to possess excess stock of plutonium, Japan has large amounts of the weapons-grade material. The amount to be returned to the U.S. this time is a fraction of Japan’s overall stockpile.
Obama, who arrived in the Netherlands Monday morning, has been pressing his foreign counterparts for years to either get rid of their nuclear materials or more tightly secure the stockpiles.
Even though the majority of Japan’s public favor nuclear phase-out, the government recently introduced a draft long-term energy policy proposing maintaining nuclear power as a key energy source, while promising to pursue fuel recycling program. Officials argue they can eventually take care of the plutonium issue, but it is highly uncertain because of lingering uncertainty surrounding reactor restarts.
In order to slow the plutonium stockpile increase, Japan would have to restart about 16 reactors that would burn plutonium-uranium hybrid fuel called MOX, which at the moment an overly optimistic plan.
The plan was first reported by The New York Times. The Japanese and American officials insisted on anonymity in order to confirm the plan ahead of Monday’s announcement.