- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - A senior U.S. official came out strongly Thursday against major powers in East Asia pursuing nuclear reprocessing that nonproliferation experts warn could lead to spiraling quantities of weapons-usable material in a tense region.

Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel “has little if any economic justification” and raises concerns about nuclear security and nonproliferation.

The administration appears to be elevating its public expressions of concern over plans by Japan and China to produce plutonium for energy generation - a technology that South Korea also aspires to have.

Countryman heads the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. His unusually critical comments come as President Barack Obama prepares to host more than 50 world leaders for a nuclear security summit in Washington at the end of this month.

The committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. Bob Corker, accused the Obama administration of encouraging reprocessing despite the concern over proliferation.

Corker pointed to the renegotiation a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with China last year that allows the reprocessing of fuel from U.S.-designed reactors for nonmilitary purposes. It is similar to the arrangement the U.S. has with close ally Japan.

The U.S. has deferred a decision on giving similar consent to another close ally, South Korea, but has not ruled it out.

“We’re not calling for a plutonium time-out like we could have done,” Corker told the hearing.

Countryman denied that the administration has encouraged reprocessing. He said China, which unlike Japan and South Korea has nuclear weapons, already had the capability to reprocess on its own.

“I would be very happy to see all countries get out of the plutonium reprocessing business,” Countryman said.

Japan began building a major reprocessing plant with French state-owned company Areva in the early 1990s. The project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, and in November, its opening was postponed until 2018 to allow for more safety upgrades and inspections.

China, meanwhile, has been negotiating with Areva for a plant on a similar scale.

Democratic Sen. Ed Markey warned of a domino effect in East Asia, saying if Japan and China went ahead with their plants, there would be pressure on South Korea to pursue its own reprocessing efforts, and that could undermine any U.S. efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Countryman said the U.S. has raised with France its concerns about the dynamics in Asia, a region steeped in historical rivalries dating back to World War II and beyond.

“There is a degree of competition among the major powers in East Asia. It is a competition that in my view extends into irrational spheres, such as, ‘Hey, they have this technology, we have got to have it, too.’ No matter (that) it is a technology that makes no economic sense and that would not improve their standing in their world,” he said.

In Beijing, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz voiced concern Thursday about China’s plans for its first commercial-scale reprocessing plant. He told The Wall Street Journal that China’s recent announcements that it would press ahead with the facility “certainly isn’t a positive in terms of nonproliferation.”

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