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Japan, US decide against reviewing atomic energy accord to maintain status quo

Monju, a trouble-plagued prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor which is set to be decommissioned, is pictured in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, on Oct. 20, 2017. The reactor was regarded as the core of Japan's nuclear fuel cycle project. (Mainichi)

The Japan-U.S. agreement on the peaceful use of atomic energy is set to be renewed without a review because both countries intend to maintain the status quo of their respective policies.

It is set to be confirmed on Jan. 16 that the accord, which is officially known as the "Agreement for Cooperation Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Japan Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy," will be renewed in July.

Japan, which has pledged to the international community that it will not possess plutonium without specific purposes for using the material, cannot easily change its nuclear fuel cycle project, in which plutonium and the remaining uranium are extracted from spent nuclear fuel and reprocessed into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for use in nuclear plants. The agreement explicitly allows Japan to promote the project.

The United States, which is cooperating with Japan in promoting exports of nuclear plants, has shown consideration to Tokyo's position.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe regards exports of atomic power stations as one of the pillars of its growth strategy. Since Japanese and U.S. companies, including Hitachi Ltd. and General Electric Co., are involved in exports of nuclear plants, the bilateral accord is indispensable for exports to other countries. This view is shared by the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump.

As the Japan-U.S. alliance is of growing significance in countering the threat posed by North Korea and other issues, neither Tokyo nor Washington prioritized a review of the agreement on the peaceful use of atomic energy.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said when he visited Japan in October 2017 that there is no reason for renegotiating the accord.

During a summit meeting in Tokyo the following month, Prime Minister Abe and President Trump apparently did not bring up the issue.

Speculation spread in Japan that calls for a review of the agreement could emerge after Prime Minister Abe appointed Taro Kono, who is critical of the nuclear fuel cycle project, as foreign minister as part of a Cabinet reshuffle in August 2017.

Since he became foreign minister, however, Kono has not intervened in nuclear energy policy, which is outside his jurisdiction.

Kono stopped short of mentioning a possible review of the accord when he appeared in a BS11 TV program aired on Jan. 11.

"The agreement forms the basis for Japan's peaceful use of atomic energy," Kono said, although he expressed concerns about the accord saying, "Japan needs and has a duty to create a situation in which we can explain with confidence how the country intends to use plutonium to the international community."

After the agreement is automatically extended on July 16, the accord can be scrapped in six months if either Japan or the United States notifies the other. Some officials within the U.S. Department of Defense and the State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation are concerned about Japan's stockpiling of a massive amount of plutonium, which can be converted into nuclear weapons.

A source close to the Japanese Foreign Ministry is optimistic about the agreement. "Since there is mutual trust between Japan and the United States, Washington won't raise questions about the agreement for now," said the source.

Still, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the United States will call for a review of the accord.

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