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U.S. Airs Proliferation Fears on Japanese Plutonium Site

Japanese plans to activate a large-scale plutonium production complex could prompt a regional push to produce bomb-capable reactor fuel, U.S. government personnel said in a Wednesday report by the Wall Street Journal.

The Rokkasho facility is believed capable of recycling used atomic material to generate 9 tons of plutonium each year, a quantity equal to Japan's current domestic stockpile and a sufficient amount to power 2,000 nuclear arms. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's 2012 electoral victory reinvigorated efforts to open the long-delayed facility previously written off by the Obama administration in light of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, public and private-sector sources said.

The Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority has said the seven-month schedule for completing new accident prevention rules would make Rokkasho's present October launch date "impossible" to realize.

Power reactors can run on plutonium, but Japan would stockpile most of the material because the vast majority of its atomic energy facilities run instead on uranium. Tokyo insists it has no nuclear arms ambitions and justifies plutonium production in part through a need to deal with its nuclear waste.

Nearby nations including China, South Korea, and Taiwan could take the facility's potential launch into account in deciding whether to pursue -- or for China, enhance -- their own weapon-sensitive nuclear fuel capabilities, U.S. government sources suggested. Japan Atomic Energy Commission Vice Chairman Tatsujiro Suzuki said he was essentially told last month by Obama officials that permitting the island nation "to acquire large amounts of plutonium without clear prospects for a plutonium-use plan is a bad example for the rest of the world."

In addition, the United States has voiced worries over plans to safeguard Japan's plutonium stocks from possible theft.

The International Atomic Energy Agency would supervise the site's activities to ensure no plutonium is rerouted for illicit use, said a representative of the company in charge of the site. "Japan accepts regular and irregular inspections from the IAEA and makes public how it handles and uses plutonium, which proves that Japan makes a peaceful use of it," Japan Nuclear Fuel spokesman Yasufumi Fukushi added.

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