How France is Fueling Japan and China’s Nuclear 'Race'

France is helping to support industrial policies that make no economic sense and potentially threaten a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia.

In any case, if Rokkasho enters commercial operation then China’s reprocessing and fast breeder enthusiasts will likely get the green light from their government for a reprocessing contract with Areva. China’s plan is to store plutonium fuel for a fast breeder prototype, but the project would also give China the option to rapidly increase the size of its nuclear arsenal, a point not lost on some Japanese strategists.

In the wings is South Korea, which has been pressing the United States to allow it to reprocess plutonium in the US-ROK nuclear cooperation agreement. It sees itself as the equal of Japan and will not stand for being left behind. We may well end up with a spiraling commitment to reprocessing and plutonium fuel in Northeast Asia. This would sharply reduce the margin between nuclear energy use and weapons in both Japan and Korea. And it would give respectability to adopting reprocessing in countries around the world with mixed motives.

This is not the first time that French reprocessing threatened proliferation problems. In the 1970s, the U.S. government realized that French sales of reprocessing technology to Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan had “path to a bomb” written all over them. The American government jumped in forcefully and managed to persuade France to stop all three deals.

The United States insisted at that time that whatever the industrial arguments, international security should come first. President Gerald Ford stated in 1976 that plutonium should not be separated or used as a fuel—by any country—until we are confident “that the world community can effectively overcome the associated risks of proliferation.” Surely we have not reached that point.

It is unsurprising that Japan’s nuclear establishment cannot easily give up the course it has been on for many decades, and thus appeals for “understanding” of Japan’s unique circumstances. But if nonproliferation standards are to work, they have to be common standards, applicable to all. Japan needs to take into account that going ahead with Rokkasho will likely initiate an East Asian competition in plutonium stockpiling that will be difficult to control. The right decision is to put Rokkasho on hold. And France should reconsider the dangers of making separated plutonium more widely available. It should stop selling reprocessing technology and stop encouraging others to reprocess.

Victor Gilinsky is a former US Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner. Henry Sokolski is executive director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (2015).

Image: Flickr/IAEA Imagebank