Japan has agreed to turn over its controversial stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium to the United States and will make the announcement on Monday. The initiative is something the Obama administration has been pursuing in Japan for some time now. The plutonium was given to Japan during the Cold War for research purposes and it is estimated that the stockpile could be used to make up to 50 nuclear weapons. The announcement will come as world leaders meet in the Hague for the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit.
The achievement represents a victory for President Barack Obama ahead of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit. The U.S. has been pursuing the issue with Japan since the first Nuclear Security Summit in 2010. Previous Japanese governments justified hanging on to the plutonium for research purposes. The announcement by the Japanese government will coincide with the beginning of the summit. President Obama will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye in a trilateral setting on the sidelines of the summit. He will also meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the conference.
According to the New York Times‘ report, the stockpile was “lightly guarded at best,” noting that site was “less-well protected than many banks,” raising concerns about the materials falling into the wrong hands. The vulnerability of the stockpiles was one motivator for the United States to pursue the issue with the Japanese government.
The Japanese government’s decision to comply with the United States on this matter might appease concerns in China and elsewhere that the plutonium stockpiles were in Japan to allow it a nuclear breakout ability. According to Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong asked Japan to justify its “excessive amount of sensitive nuclear material.” “What is Japan going to do with the material? Why does Japan need weapons-grade nuclear material?” Li said. “Japan owes the international community a clear explanation.” The same article mentions efforts by right-wing political forces in Japan to revise Article 9 of the national constitution which prevents Japan from fielding an overtly offensive military force.
As Shannon Tiezzi noted earlier, Japan’s plutonium problems go deeper than this stockpile. Japan is the only non-nuclear weapon state to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, creating lower-quality plutonium in the process. An International Panel of Fissile Materials report estimates that a new Japanese reprocessing plant at Rokkasho, set to reopen soon, will create a byproduct of eight tons of plutonium per year — an amount sufficient to “to make one thousand Nagasaki-type bombs.”