SPEAKING FREELY China frets over Japanese nuclear program
By Hui Zhang
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
At the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit held in The Hague in March, Japan agreed to turn over to Washington hundreds of kilograms of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, some of which would have been ideally suited for use in nuclear weapons.
This was an important victory in global nuclear security efforts for which Japan should be commended. Unfortunately, Japan still stores 9 tonnes of separated plutonium at home and 35 tonnes in
Britain and France - enough for thousands of nuclear weapons.
Tokyo plans to separate more such materials even though in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster the future scale of nuclear energy production in Japan is very uncertain. Thus, Chinese experts and officials cannot help but view Japan's plutonium stocks with considerable alarm.
Beijing believes that Tokyo's existing plutonium stockpiles are "far exceeding ... [the] normal needs" of a nuclear power program. Even worse, once Rokkasho reprocessing facility starts operating, about eight tonnes of plutonium - enough to build 1,000 bombs - would be added to its already immense plutonium stockpile each year.
Some suspect that the real intention of Tokyo's plutonium recycling program is to retain the option of developing nuclear weapons sometime in the future.
Tokyo defends its plutonium recycling program as solely for civilian purposes. However, reuse of separated plutonium in fast breeder reactors planned originally several decades ago is now demonstrated to not be feasible commercially before 2050.
Even Japan's Monju prototype breeder reactor is now slated mainly for other research use. Also the plan to reuse plutonium in light water reactors is now believed to be unviable, given the concerns for safety after the Fukushima accident.
Without a clear prospect of consuming existing surplus plutonium in the near future, it makes no sense to continue separating more plutonium. While Tokyo is expected to take actions to minimize its surplus plutonium stocks, instead the opposite is happening and the Abe administration pushes ahead with the operation of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. This clearly contradicts Japan's stated policy of avoiding surplus plutonium and only raises further questions over its real purpose.
Japan is the only non-nuclear state that continues to reprocess its nuclear fuel. Its continuing reprocessing is encouraging another neighbor, South Korea, to pursue reprocessing as well, thus leading to a broader race for reprocessing technologies or even weapons in northeast Asia, which would further destabilize the region. Indeed, Seoul has been insisting on a new Agreement of Nuclear Cooperation with Washington to have the same right to reprocess as Japan.
Many Chinese further question why Tokyo is determined to move forward with its reprocessing plan, defying current world trends. The Hague Nuclear Security Summit communique encouraged "States to keep their stockpile of separated plutonium to the minimum level". The international community unanimously endorses the concerns about security issues of separated plutonium, which would create an inviting target for terrorists to steal or attack.
In fact, even Washington has recently expressed concerns about Tokyo's reprocessing program which would increase both the risk of proliferation and security issues of separated plutonium. However, Tokyo remains committed, ignoring all those efforts.
Further, Japan has an advanced space program, including solid-propellant rocket technology, and guidance and re-entry technology. Those technologies could be adapted to develop Tokyo's ballistic missile capabilities. Chinese nuclear weapons experts emphasize that Japan has technically everything needed to make nuclear weapons. The only thing it needs is political will, and, once decided, Japan can make its bombs in a short time.
Indeed, Tokyo has linked its plutonium recycling program with its defense purpose from the inception of its nuclear program. As early as the late 1960s, a study per a request by then-prime minister Eisaku Sato about the possibility of Japan developing an independent nuclear force maintained that "the plutonium stocks resulting from its civilian nuclear power program would give Japan the option of making nuclear weapons".
In practice, many Japanese officials have repeatedly argued publicly that "Japan should have nuclear weapons", and that this development "would not violate its constitution". Then deputy chief cabinet secretary and current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in 2002 that "the constitution would not block Japan's production of nuclear weapons provided they were small".
Many Chinese worry that as Japanese politics moves rightward, it could result in the country seeking its own weapons. Beijing's concerns have intensified with its confrontation with the Abe administration over historical recognition and territorial issues.
Tokyo should address concerns over its reprocessing plans and plutonium stocks. These worries, if left to fester, can have negative consequences for regional security in Asia. To reduce suspicions, Tokyo should take specific steps to abide strictly by its "no surplus plutonium policy". It is time for Tokyo to stop reprocessing and eliminate its surplus plutonium as soon as possible.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Hui Zhang, a physicist, is leading a research initiative on China's nuclear policies for the Managing the Atom Project in Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.