News Analysis: Japan's plutonium stockpiles raise specter of nuclear security, de facto deterrence
Pressure is mounting on Japan to explain itself regarding its considerable stockpiles of nuclear materials that could be weaponized and threaten the safety of the global community, against a backdrop of rising tensions in the region and a worldwide threat of increasing terrorism.
Ahead of the fourth Nuclear Security Summit slated to be held in Washington, the United States, from March 31 to April 1, at which global powers will convene to discuss issues and mechanisms to prevent, among other potential calamities, nuclear terrorism, additional points that have been tabled include those designed specifically to prevent nuclear material production and smuggling and to thus lessen the inherent global threats.
The Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security in China, has been hailed as a successful collaboration between the U.S and China which will see the latter's capacity building to detect illicit smuggling of nuclear materials increase in the best interests of global security, but, with such successes currently under the spotlight, analysts here are suggesting it's high time that some of the ongoing failings are also brought to the fore.
While some countries are following through with commitments towards non-nuclear proliferation, anti-terrorism measures and devising lasting solutions to ensure nuclear materials will not fall into the hands of terrorists, or be in other ways misused, Japan, over the years and more so recently, is being called into question over its own adherence, or lack thereof, to the global movement, as regards its own policy and contrary activities.
"It has been highly-publicized that a cargo of 331 kg of highly rich plutonium, enough to make up to 50 nuclear bombs, is currently on its way from Japan to the United States under armed escort, following a bilateral deal struck between Japan and the U.S. (in 2014)," David McLellan, a professor emeritus of postgraduate Asian Studies told Xinhua.
"Ostensibly, this is a good thing as there, under the guidance of global superpowers, has been a dynamic shift since the cold war towards non-nuclear proliferation and, more recently, anti-terrorist operations, and the return of the substances originally provided to Japan by Britain, France and the U.S. in the 1970s for neutronic testing falls under this remit and more recent deals made between Japan and the U.S.," McLellan said.
He went on to explain however, that Japan still continues to have one of the largest stockpiles of separated plutonium and highly-enriched uranium in the world and that concerns are growing as Japan is being equivocal as to why it deems it necessary to accumulate such vast amounts of deadly substances, and that calls for the government to fully explain itself were particularly valid considering the current global climate.
Japan itself is a committed signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), with nations supporting the treaty dedicated to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and related technology, with an ultimate aim of seeing global nuclear disarmament, whilst striving to promote cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Japan, as recently as Monday, has reiterated its stance that it has no intention of shifting its nuclear stance and will adhere to its three non-nuclear principles of not producing, possessing or allowing nuclear weapons on Japanese territory.
But with Japan's ever-shifting security dynamic, including the recent actualization of a reinterpretation of key constitutional clause last year that paved the way for war related bills to be forced through parliament and into law by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is, henceforth, setting about to see the constitution amended further to allow his military to be reinstated beyond the constraints of defense and operate borderlessly, questions are being asked of Japan's intended adherence to its own nuclear principles.
Japan's Three Non-Nuclear Principles have been a guide for the nation's nuclear policy since their inception in the late 1960s and were formerly adopted in the the early 1970s, explained McLellan, "but what we have to understand is that these policies were made under the unshakable faith in a nuclear deterrent provided to Japan by the United States, a notion that according to 'chatter' in parliament and more importantly among Abe's ministers and members of the Legislation Bureau recently, is again being questioned."
Other analysts elucidated, and while explaining that the situation was far from elementary, said that there were a number of key factors to be considered that primarily revolved around Japan's ongoing security shift and the notion that Japan's Constitution may not necessarily ban the use of nuclear weapons; the current U.S. presidential race; Japan's commercial nuclear operations, and geopolitical tensions in the area.
"It's largely conjecture at this point, but the facts remain thus: Japan has just less than 47,000 kg of plutonium, both in and outside the country, with as much as 9,600 kg stored here. That is a sizable amount, so the return of a mere 331 kg to the U.S. for disposal or reprocessing for commercial use is largely insignificant, if not a 'gesture'," suggested Asian affairs commentator Kaoru Imori.
He added that Japan's claims of producing and storing plutonium for the future of its fast-breeder nuclear reactor program - reactors that feed off plutonium - may be a valid one, but the fact that such reactors are largely in a developmental phase and thus far have seen one forced shutdown of a reactor unit owned by Kansai Electric that uses plutonium MOX fuel, due to a fault, and another forcibly taken offline by a court order, owing to safety concerns, detracts hugely from this argument.
"The fast-breeder nuclear reactor argument is flawed as the program is years, if not decades from being viable, which begs the question, why has Japan been stockpiling plutonium for so many years? 331 kg being returned to the U.S. is a drop in the ocean compared to the amount Japan has, and this, quite rightly, should be questioned by the international community and explained in detail by the government," Imori said.
There has also been widespread condemnation from some groups who have blasted Japan's nuclear ambitions over the past 25-years, as well as its plans to continue production of plutonium over the coming decades, as not just being a commercial security risk, but a loosely-veiled nuclear deterrent from a military standpoint.
"Hailing a shipment of hundreds of kilograms of plutonium as a triumph for nuclear security, while ignoring over 9 tons of the weapons material stockpiled in Japan and in a region of rising tensions, is not just a failure of nuclear non-proliferation and security policy but a dangerous delusion," Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany, was quoted as saying in Japan recently.
Burnie pretty much hit the nail on the head. Skeptics have long-since maintained that Japan's stockpiles have served as a tacit nuclear deterrent and in the event that the "United States' deterrent was scaled back, was withdrawn and Japan granted more nuclear autonomy, as has been suggested during U.S. Presidential campaigning, or Japan amended its constitution to allow it to rewrite its own Three Non-Nuclear Principles, within the NPT framework, to 'better suit the current geopolitical landscape,' we could, theoretically, see a fully-nuclear Japan," Imori said.
He concluded, however, that this is the exact opposite of what is essential for the region in light of current tensions and broader terrorist-related activities in the world. "As we've seen in the past and as we're continuing to see, weapons proliferation, nuclear or otherwise, leads to arms races, which exacerbates tensions."
"When a situation reaches tipping point, powerful countries need to lead by example with non-proliferation moves, pledges and substantial action to denuclearize the world and, above all, while maintaining the inalienable right to defend ones' country, to always hold dialogue and diplomacy as the ultimate means of achieving sustainable peace," said Imori, adding that Japan's dubious moves and nebulous communication on such matters were creating further problems rather than much-needed solutions.