Northeast Asia’s Nuclear Future

by James E. Platte

[Backgrounder on the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit]

At the beginning of 2011, Northeast Asia was well on its way to becoming the epicenter of a long anticipated global nuclear renaissance. According to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan account for 22 percent of the operational nuclear power reactors in the world. More importantly, 52 percent of the reactors under construction in the world are located in Northeast Asia (China alone has 41 percent), and 53 percent of the reactors connected to electricity grids since 2000 are in this region. The trend was only beginning, with China and South Korea crafting aggressive expansion plans.

But the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011 and the ensuing tsunami caused the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl, at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 225 kilometers north of Tokyo. Before the earthquake, Japan had 54 operational nuclear reactors. Today, only one of those reactors is producing electricity. The future of the Japanese nuclear industry – and the nuclear dynamics of all of Northeast Asia – is now in question.

Against this backdrop, the world gathered in Seoul, South Korea for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit on March 26 and 27. This year’s summit ostensibly retained the 2010 summit’s main objective of reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism, but there was one very significant addition to this year’s agenda: exploring the nexus between nuclear security and nuclear safety. This addition was entirely due to Fukushima, which is reflected in the Seoul Communiqué released at the end of the summit. It states, “Noting the Fukushima accident of March 2011 … we consider that sustained efforts are required to address the issues of nuclear safety and nuclear security in a coherent manner that will help ensure the safe and secure peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

While not on the official agenda of the Nuclear Security Summit either in 2010 or 2012, North Korea is another vexing nuclear issue that was on the minds of all who gathered in Seoul. During a visit to the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, U.S. President Obama expressed a resolve to end North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship. Over the past few years, Pyongyang’s nuclear developments have included an underground nuclear test in 2009 and unveiling a new uranium enrichment facility at the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex to a group of visiting American nuclear experts in November 2010.

North Korea ensured its relevance at the Seoul summit by announcing that it will conduct a satellite launch on or around April 15 to commemorate the 100th birthday of national founder Kim Il Sung. Pyongyang acted accordingly by moving a rocket onto the launch pad on the eve of the summit. Such a test would seem to violate an agreement between the United States and North Korea on February 29 of this year, which provides 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the U.S. in exchange for North Korea agreeing to suspend its long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and nuclear activities at Yongbyon (including uranium enrichment). U.S. officials now say that the delivery of food aid has been suspended, and all members of the Six-Party Talks expressed their disapproval of the planned test during the summit. Japanese Prime Minister Noda said in his opening remarks, “The planned missile launch North Korea recently announced would go against the international community’s nuclear non-proliferation effort and violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

Even before Pyongyang announced the planned satellite launch, the so-called “Leap Day Deal” with Washington was met with skepticism from some observers as Pyongyang has repeatedly reneged on such agreements. The deal also says nothing of North Korea’s existing nuclear weapons, and it is widely believed that North Korea possesses another uranium enrichment facility outside of Yongbyon.

A resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue remains far off, and North Korea still represents a major threat to the viability of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. Among regional powers, Beijing has the closest relations with Pyongyang, and this makes China’s role in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue vital. Beijing has hosted and championed the Six-Party Talks – widely viewed as a measure of China’s regional leadership capacity. However, it is yet to be seen how far Beijing can and will go to achieve a denuclearized North Korea now that the Talks are stalled.

Overall, as the news and statements that came out of the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit demonstrate, Northeast Asia exemplifies both the peril and promise of the nuclear industry. The negative impact of Fukushima and North Korea’s dangerous nuclear politicking stand in stark contrast to the promise of growing nuclear sectors in China and South Korea. While preventing nuclear terrorism and strengthening nuclear security globally are urgent issues, how the nuclear dynamics of Northeast Asia plays out in the coming years will be more critical for the future of the global nuclear industry.

Jim Platte is a Ph.D. candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he studies nuclear fuel cycle policy. 

About the Author

Jim Platte is a Ph.D. candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he studies nuclear fuel cycle policy. He has an academic background in nuclear engineering and has work experience analyzing nuclear proliferation issues with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy and with the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

NATO’s Next Challenge Comes from Within

Flight is Not Always an Option: A Reply to de Waal, Meierhenrich, and Conley-Zilkic