A Little-Known Nuclear Race Taking Place in East Asia Is Dangerous and Pointless

plutonium stockpile

Plutonium was first produced and separated during America’s World War II nuclear weapons project. Its destructive power became apparent at the end of the war when, in one-millionth of a second, one kilogram of plutonium in the Nagasaki bomb fissioned and destroyed the city below.

Today, a number of countries — including France and Japan — are separating plutonium from the spent fuel of their reactors and building dangerous stockpiles of this weapon-usable nuclear material with no good economic purpose.

Japan, the only non-nuclear weapons state that separates plutonium today, has accumulated almost 50 metric tons. Last month, Japan shipped more than 700 pounds of mostly weapons-grade plutonium — enough for about 50 nuclear bombs — to a more secure location in the U.S. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been simultaneously pushing through a law to guarantee funding for a new spent fuel “reprocessing” plant designed to separate hundreds of tons of plutonium for use in reactor fuel.

Meanwhile, China’s new five-year plan includes a proposal to buy a reprocessing plant from France that will separate plutonium that will probably accumulate like Japan’s. And South Korea insists that it should have the same right to separate plutonium as Japan.

These plans and desires are troubling. As President Obama said during the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, “We know that just the smallest amount of plutonium — about the size of an apple — could kill hundreds of thousands and spark a global crisis … We simply can’t go on accumulating huge amounts of the very material, like separated plutonium, that we’re trying to keep away from terrorists.”