VIENNA (Reuters) - There is no reason for concern that plutonium held by Japan could be diverted for nuclear arms purposes, the U.N. atomic watchdog said on Monday, after objections raised by China in another dispute between the east Asian neighbours.
Last month, Beijing said it was “extremely concerned” by a report that Japan has resisted returning to the United States more than 300 kg (660 lb) of mostly weapons-grade plutonium.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency said that the United States had pressed Japan to give back the nuclear material, which could be used to make up to 50 nuclear bombs. Japan had balked, but finally given in to U.S. demands, Kyodo said.
The material was bought for research purposes during the 1960s and the two governments will likely reach an official agreement on its return at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in March, an official at Japan’s Education Ministry said.
Japan also has plutonium contained in spent nuclear fuel at civil reactor sites and reprocessing plants - totalling 159 tonnes at the end of 2012, according to Japanese data posted on the website of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat, said there was no sign that nuclear material in Japan “has the risk of being diverted” for military applications.
“We have drawn (the) conclusion that all nuclear materials in Japan stay in peaceful purposes,” he told a news conference in response to questions. “Therefore, I do not have (a) reason to have concern that this (material) ... will be diverted.”
Tasked with preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, IAEA inspectors regularly check nuclear facilities around the world, including in Japan and other countries with nuclear power plants and other atomic facilities.
“All the plutonium ... in Japan is under IAEA safeguards,” Amano said, referring to regular nuclear inspections.
China is involved in a bitter territorial dispute with Japan. It denies Japanese accusations that it is a threat to peace and in turn has accused Japan of trying to rearm and failing to learn the lessons of its brutal behaviour during World War Two, when Japanese forces occupied China.
Unlike China, Japan, the world’s only target of atomic bombs, in the final stages of World War Two, does not have nuclear weapons, and it is the government’s stance that it will not seek to obtain them.
Deteriorating relations between Beijing and Tokyo have been fuelled by a dispute over a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
The atmosphere has worsened since China’s creation of an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine honouring war criminals among Japan’s war dead.
Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Mark Heinrich