Japan could 'go nuclear' in months
By Marc Erikson

On January 3, Washington Post syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, "We [the US] should go to the Chinese and tell them plainly that if they do not join us in squeezing North Korea ... we will endorse any Japanese attempt to create a nuclear deterrent of its own. Even better, we would sympathetically regard any request by Japan to acquire American nuclear missiles as an immediate and interim deterrent. If our nightmare is a nuclear North Korea, China's is a nuclear Japan. It's time to share the nightmares."

It's not clear how shared nightmares would make for a safer Northeast Asia. But there can be no doubt that if Japan saw fit to become a nuclear power, it could do so in less than a year's time - without American help and borrowed nukes and to China's certain chagrin.

There is also a fast-growing body of opinion in Japan saying that that's precisely what the country should do. Latest on that is a December "Nuclear Declaration for Japan" by influential Kyoto University international-relations Professor Terumasa Nakanishi (co-author with Fred Charles Ikle, undersecretary of defense for policy in the Ronald Reagan administration, of a widely noted Foreign Affairs article "Japan's grand strategy") and literary critic Kazuya Fukuda calling on the Japanese not to cave in to the North Korean nuclear threat: "The best way for Japan to avoid being the target of North Korean nuclear missiles is for the prime minister to declare without delay that Japan will arm itself with nuclear weapons." They also want Japan to get on with construction of a missile-defense system, post haste.

Recall, too, that in April last year Liberal Party president Ichiro Ozawa created a massive furor claiming (rightly, by the way) that Japan - to deter any China threat - could easily produce "thousands of nuclear warheads" from plutonium extracted from the spent fuel of its more than 50 commercial nuclear reactors. In late May, chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda followed suit and told a news conference (right again) that Japan's war-renouncing constitution does not prevent it from possessing nuclear weapons.

A few years back, such declarations by noted academics or statements by high-ranking politicians and government officials would have been unthinkable. Quite evidently, they no longer are.

Significant political hurdles remain. But those could come down in a hurry should North Korea in its present escalation mood launch another ballistic missile across Japan's bow as in August 1998. As for technical feasibility, Japan for two decades or more has had the scientific and technological capability and the tools and materials to make nuclear bombs in short order - and by now not just crude but highly sophisticated ones. Asked how long it would take, a Japanese defense official offered the - tongue-in-cheek? - detail of 183 days.

The North Korean nuclear (or other WMD)-tipped ballistic missiles to Japan is real enough. While it was the 1998 Taepodong 1 launch that alerted the Japanese public to the danger, North Korea at the time and now had about 100 Nodong 1 missiles deployed and ready whose range of about 1,200 kilometers (perhaps up to 1,500km) covers most of Japan. As real as this threat is Japan's ability of drawing even and then quickly ahead in any nuclear missile arms race. It has the missiles; it has the fissile materials.

According to figures published annually by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, at the end of 2001 the country owned 38 tons of separated reactor-grade plutonium (RGPu) - about six tons stored in Japan, the remainder in reprocessing plants in France and the United Kingdom. The amount stored at home increased by 400 kilograms during the year from reprocessing at the Tokai facility of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Development Institute. This percentage increase will grow rapidly when a larger commercial-size reprocessing plant in Rokkasho comes on line in 2005. But who needs it? Six tons is enough for anywhere from 400-800 warheads.

There have been claims, including by Japanese officials anxious to deny any weapons-making purpose, that RGPu could not be used for weapons production. That's utter nonsense. According to the latest US Department of Energy guidance on the subject, "The degree to which the obstacles to the use of RGPu can be overcome depends on the sophistication of the state or group attempting to produce a nuclear weapon. At the lowest level of sophistication ... could build a weapon from RGPu that would give an assured, reliable yield of one or a few kilotons, and a probable yield much greater than that ... At the other end of the [sophistication] spectrum, [states], using modern designs, could produce weapons from RGPu ... comparable to weapons made from WGPu (weapons-grade plutonium)."

Japan decidedly is at or near the higher end of the sophistication spectrum. Moreover, it could easily upgrade RGPu to WGPu, produce weapons-grade uranium from low-enriched uranium (WGU) by laser separation, or just produce WGU in its commercial centrifuge plant. Beyond that, at its Osaka Laser Engineering Laboratory, Japan has one of the world's largest, most powerful lasers for use in inertial confinement (or laser) fusion experiments. Weapons testing could be done there as it is in a comparable facility to the United States' Lawrence Livermore lab. Indeed, not only could fission-weapons designs be tested on a small scale, the same goes for much more sophisticated and high-yield hydrogen (thermonuclear fusion) weapons.

Technically, Japan is ready. Politically, North Korea may push it over the brink.

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Jan 14, 2003

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