India seeks Japan’s approval to reprocess spent nuclear fuel

Japan has been asked to approve reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in India as part of negotiations to conclude a nuclear power agreement between the two nations.

But though the Abe administration is eager to export nuclear power generation infrastructure as a pillar of its economic growth strategy, some Japanese government officials are cautious about approving the request from India.

The reprocessing produces plutonium that can be used as raw materials for nuclear weapons, which India already possesses.

According to officials of both the Japanese and Indian governments, India’s request is in line with the nuclear power agreement it reached with the United States.

Under certain conditions, the U.S.-India agreement allows India to reprocess within its borders spent nuclear fuel that was produced at nuclear power plants constructed with infrastructure exported from the United States.

The conditions state that the reprocessing must be conducted at newly constructed reprocessing facilities, which undergo inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998. As it is not a member country of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the international community had long prohibited member countries of the treaty from concluding nuclear power agreements with India for civilian purposes, including exports of nuclear power generation infrastructure.

However, in recent years those countries began to regard India, where electricity demand is growing rapidly, as a promising market for exports of nuclear power generation infrastructure.

As a result, the United States concluded a nuclear power agreement with India in 2007. The next year, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which consists of 48 countries, including Japan and the United States, gave the green light to member countries to draw up nuclear power agreements with India by citing it as an exceptional country.

France and Russia are among countries that have since reached nuclear power agreements with India.
India, which plans to use plutonium in fast-breeder reactors that are under development, claims that reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in the country is indispensable for nuclear power policies for peaceful purposes.

India wants to quickly reach a nuclear power agreement with Japan, which has key technologies on nuclear reactors. Though India is also considering taking on nuclear power plant construction projects with both the United States and France, there is a strong likelihood that it will use Japan-made products for pressure vessels and other key parts of those plants. Unless India concludes a nuclear power agreement with Japan, those projects will not make any progress.

As India plans to construct about 30 nuclear reactors, it will become a promising client for Japan. Some officials in the Japanese government say that Japan should conclude a nuclear power agreement with India as soon as possible.

However, Japan has not approved reprocessing of spent nuclear fuels or enrichment of uranium in nuclear power agreements it has reached with other countries. That is because plutonium, which is produced by the reprocessing, and enriched uranium can be converted for military use.

If Japan allows India to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, the approval would contradict the Japanese government’s efforts to prevent plutonium or enriched uranium from being converted for military use.

Some officials of the Japanese government are keen to avoid stoking more anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan, which has grown stronger since the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

In 2010, the Japanese government started negotiations with India to draw up a nuclear power agreement. The talks were suspended after the Great East Japan Earthquake, but resumed in September 2013.

The nuclear power agreement is expected to be a topic of discussion in a summit meeting between Japan and India when the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Japan in late August or later.


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