Nuclear Debates in Asia Digest: What to Do with Nuclear Waste? Domestic Debates in Japan and South Korea

Nuclear Debates in Asia Digest: What to Do with Nuclear Waste? Domestic Debates in Japan and South Korea

Countries with nuclear power in their energy portfolio eventually face a common and difficult challenge: what to do with the radioactive waste once its life as reactor fuel is over? As policymakers develop management solutions to the great quantity of dangerous byproducts, those decisions must coexist with domestic politics, tightening budgets, and national security and global nonproliferation goals.

Japan and South Korea are in the midst of a domestic debate on how to address this spent fuel challenge. Their governments currently envision giving spent fuel a new life through a process called reprocessing whereby radioactive waste is removed from a reactor and later chemically treated to separate and recover fissionable plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel. Advocates of this approach argue that reprocessing could produce new fuel for advanced nuclear reactors and reduce the relative amount of high-level radioactive waste in a country’s stockpile. Many nonproliferation groups, however, argue that this process is too similar to what it takes to make ingredients for a nuclear weapon, is too costly compared to alternative options, and that the spread of these technologies increases the risk of proliferation.

This Nuclear Debates in Asia Digest looks at the following issues:

  • Domestic debate on reprocessing in Japan and South Korea
  • Highlights the major issues facing U.S. negotiators as they seek to renew a nuclear cooperation agreement with South Korea
  • How reprocessing decisions interact with nonproliferation and national security

Domestic Debate on Reprocessing in Japan and South Korea

In order to be sufficient for the long haul, permanent repository sites require a particular set of preconditions: suitable geological composition, agreeable local population, appropriate space, etc. The tight population densities and limited landmass available for storage sites in South Korea and Japan complicate planner’s efforts to locate and secure a proper site for either their domestic nuclear energy industry or repatriated fuel burned in reactors of Japanese and South Korean nuclear plant export clients. Domestic politics remains an important consideration for Japanese and South Korean policymakers as they seek solutions to spent fuel challenges.


During an event on Thursday, April 4 organized by the Nuclear Policy Education Center (NPEC), Dr. Frank von Hippel, a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology, recalled that when Japan first approached then-President Jimmy Carter on Tokyo’s desire to reprocessing spent fuel, they characterized it as a “life or death” necessity for the island nation. Japan argued that it could not rely upon the import of limited global supplies of uranium for its nuclear reactors and that an emerging nuclear technology – fast breeder reactors – would soon come online that could use reprocessed plutonium and produce a stable supply of electricity for decades.

Von Hippel pointed out that despite this dire warning, Japan still depends on cheap imported uranium and fast breeder reactors remain commercially unviable science experiments. Japan’s Monju prototype breeder reactor has been in operation for only four months in 1995 before it experienced a fire that shut it down the facility. It has yet to restart.

Japan is a non-nuclear weapon state that has vowed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to never seek a nuclear weapon. The country is unique among that group because it has the capability to reprocess spent fuel from its nuclear reactors. Japanese officials have advocated reprocessing as the only viable solution for the growing amount of spent nuclear fuel currently filling up the cooling pools at its reactors.

According to an article published in the Asia Pacific Journal – Japan Focus:

Japan’s first “Long-Term Program for Research, Development and Utilization of Nuclear Energy” was published in 1956 and set out a national policy on the nuclear fuel cycle. The principles put forth in this plan, and reiterated in Japanese policy reviews over the last 50 years, have been that Japan should develop both spent fuel reprocessing and fast breeder reactor technology. Japanese nuclear energy policy does not consider spent nuclear fuel as waste but as a recyclable energy source.


Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (Source: JNFL)

Since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Japan placed a hold on preparations for its reprocessing facility at Rokkasho in the Aomori prefecture. The Rokkasho plant, owned by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL), was originally scheduled in 2014 to start converting plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel until construction was delayed.

Japanese domestic politics will likely continue to play a major role in the future of the country’s nuclear fuel cycle. In an interview with the Arms Control Association in 2011, Dr. Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, and a senior Japanese official believed that “one of the inducements to the residents of Aomori to agree to host the Rokkasho plant was that it would not become a long-term repository for spent fuel and radioactive waste.” However, the Japanese official also said that nuclear operators in Japan have committed to local communities hosting nuclear plants that spent fuel would not be stored on-site indefinitely once a reprocessing plant such as the Rokkasho facility was fully operational. These public commitments, the Japanese official said, “do not give policymakers much latitude on fuel cycle policy, regardless of what decisions they make with regard to nuclear power.”

South Korea

At the NPEC event, William Tobey, former deputy administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, said that the internal debate in South Korea on reprocessing was still on-going. While the official government position favors additional enrichment and reprocessing rights in the next U.S.-South Korea nuclear cooperation agreement, other actors within the country advocate for alternative solutions.

A recent report by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies suggests that South Korean government’s reprocessing strategy is to ship “spent fuel to a future pyroprocessing site in hopes that local residents will be willing to accept the spent fuel in return for the jobs provided by a pyroprocessing plant and associated facilities.” These officials also contend that local communities would not allow on-site storage of nuclear waste – forcing the reactors to shut down when their cooling pools fill up – without the promise of a reprocessing facility.

At the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference this week, Dr. Soon-Heung Chang from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology stressed the environmental benefits of reprocessing. Dr. Chung characterized “waste minimization” as essential for “future generations” and that it was Korea’s duty for environmental protection.

Tobey suggested that if he was a tax or rate payer in Seoul, the choice between having in your backyard a “first of its kind” reprocessing plant that uses molten salt at 500 degrees Celsius or a proven storage system that uses concrete and inert dry casks that survived even the 3/11 tsunami, the choice for dry cask storage is clear. Tobey and von Hippel argued that dry cask storage facilities – similar to a reprocessing plant – would also create high quality jobs in local communities and could provide a 100-year solution for the environment.

Major Issues in U.S.-South Korea Nuclear Cooperation Agreement Negotiations

Last week South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se traveled to Washington, DC for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The Yonhap News Agency reported that this meeting would reopen negotiations over the renewal of a U.S-South Korea nuclear cooperation agreement. The report also indicated that Yun was accompanied by his country’s chief nuclear negotiator, Lim Sung-nam, who will meet separately with Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy.

As part of these negotiations, the United States and South Korea have agreed to place South Korea’s spent fuel challenges on the table. South Korean negotiators would like to secure explicit rights to enrichment and reprocessing not included in the expiring agreement, which sets rules for the export of U.S. nuclear technology and material. South Korea argues that these rights are allowed under the NPT, would reduce cost and space requirements for its nuclear fuel cycle, and allow Seoul to compete in the burgeoning nuclear energy export market.

Since these dual-use technologies can manufacture fuel for both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons, some critics have argued a revised nuclear cooperation agreement with enrichment and reprocessing rights could offer Seoul latent nuclear weapons capability. At a minimum, critics contend that this new arrangement would set a poor precedent for future nuclear energy trade and the nonproliferation regime.

Starting in 2011, the United States and South Korea have been engaged in a Joint Fuel Cycle Study, which according to a State Department official quoted by Yonhap, is “considering a variety of options for spent fuel management, including technologies related to nuclear waste disposal” such as pyroprocessing. South Korean officials and Dr. Chang contend that the pyroprocessing method poses significantly less proliferation risk than traditional methods. In a 2009 study, however, the U.S. national laboratories “concluded that for state-level threats, the differences” in this approach was “not very significant and that a state bent on developing a nuclear weapon could “convert the facility to separate pure plutonium” within a few days to a few weeks.

In terms of the economics of pyroprocessing and fast breeder reactors, the CNS report also concluded that:

“even under the most optimistic scenario, pyroprocessing and the associate fast reactors will not be available options for dealing with South Korea’s spent fuel on a large scale for several decades. Seoul will need to find other options, most urgently for managing spent fuel in the short to mid-term, but ultimately permanently, to cope with the proper management of its spent fuel or the high-level waste that will remain after pyroprocessing.”

Dry Cask Storage

Dry Cask Storage for Nuclear Spent Fuel (Source: NRC)

As negotiators hammer out the final details of the possible deal, outside experts have weighed in on the deal. Tobey and von Hippel advocated for dry cask storage as a short to medium term solution to handling the rising amount of spent fuel in South Korea and Japan. They argued a reprocessing facility in South Korea would take around 30 years to function, while the need for a solution to manage spent fuel will come up in 10 years. Von Hippel suggested that Seoul expand its existing dry cask capacity, such as at Korea’s heavy water reactor plant. Tobey estimated that only around 50 acres of land would be necessary for dry cask storage, which would give The Blue House more time to figure out a long term solution without investing in reprocessing capability.

Reprocessing’s Impact on Nonproliferation and National Security

At the NPEC event, Tobey and von Hippel argued against U.S. policy that encouraged further plutonium production or uranium enrichment by Japan, South Korea, or any other aspiring nuclear state. Von Hippel argued that a nonnuclear weapon state would become a “virtual nuclear weapon state” once it has the capability to reprocessing plutonium.

In response to a question on how recent provocations by North Korea have influenced U.S.-South Korean nuclear cooperation agreement negotiations, the panel’s moderator Henry Sokolski, former deputy for Nonproliferation Policy in the Department of Defense, discussed how local press in both South Korea and Japan were giving voice to commentators and former government officials who argue that the DPRK’s latest threats necessitate great flexibility on plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment rights. “It is in the air” of the debate, Sokolski said.

Von Hippel remarked that after Pyongyang’s 2009 nuclear test, South Korean officials began to publically discuss reprocessing within the context of national security. Mark Hibbs, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, wrote that “continued DPRK testing” would likely “make it more difficult for the [Republic of Korea] and the U.S. to reach an agreement, since pressure from conservative [South Korean] politicians to leave the NPT or develop a nuclear weapons capability will only increase.”

Last week was the 4th anniversary of President Barack Obama’s speech in Prague where he laid out his vision for a world without nuclear weapons and his goal to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. Tobey concluded his remarks at the NPEC event by suggesting that if the current domestic debate in Japan over the future of its nuclear program resulted in a pause of plutonium reprocessing, this decision “might make it easier” for Seoul to reach a similar verdict. Japan and South Korea, Tobey argued, will be significant players in the export of nuclear technologies and vows to end reprocessing could have a strong influence on how the regional and global nuclear energy economy develops.


As Dr. Frank Von Hippel said at the event, Japan is the only non-nuclear weapon state with reprocessing capabilities. How the United States and South Korea move forward with reprocessing in Seoul, he concluded, is a significant decision that could set a real precedent for future nuclear cooperation agreements. Be sure to follow the Rising Power Initiative’s Nuclear Debates in Asia project on Twitter @westmyer and the RPI blog as events develop for more news and analysis.