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Japan's Reprocessing Policy and Nuclear Proliferation in Asia
by Yuichi Kaido (lawyer)

Nuclear peril in Far East Asia

The North Korean government officially admitted to Washington on October 17th last year that it was developing a plan to enrich uranium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Subsequently, North Korea announced to the international community on January 10th that it would pull out of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and withdraw from a security measures treaty governed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Since then, military tension has heightened in the Far East region.

The movements toward a nuclear free society in Japan have also fought for the abolition of world nuclear weapons. However, when it comes to the possibility of a Japanese nuclear weapon development program, our claim is that the government maintain the Three Non-Nuclear Principles (not to possess, not to manufacture, and not to allow nuclear weapons on its soil), but we are cautious about the existence of the program, for there has been no concrete evidence to support such a fact.

Yet, we might be entering a time when reconsideration of our deliberate attitude toward the government's nuclear program might be necessary. The bellicose Bush administration was elected in Washington and there have been several remarks made by senior government officials suggesting the revision of the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, such as the remarks made by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and the Deputy Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe.

Suspicious moves to allow a nuclear-armed Japan

In the past, there were several politicians such as Mr. Shingo Nishimura (Liberal Party) and Mr. Shigeru Ishiba (Liberal DemocraticParty) who advocated the deployment of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, their claims were never taken seriously as they were regarded as abusive statements by right wing politicians But now Mr. Ishiba serves as the head of the Defense Agency. Those remarks made by Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Abe were completely different in their intention from past statements.

On May 31, Yasuo Fukuda, the Chief Cabinet Secretary and who has pivotal influence in Japan's central policy-making bodies, stated to the Cabinet reporters' club that 'in an era of calls to amend the constitution, if tension is mounting in international relationships, public opinion might favor a nuclear-armed Japan even though we have the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.' The Deputy Secretary, Shinzo Abe, also told reporters the other day that 'regardless of the legalistic and theoretical arguments about policy-making, I believe that the use of nuclear weapons is not a problematical Constitutional question. It is reported that Shintaro Ishihara, the Governor of Tokyo, talked with Mr. Fukuda on the phone and applauded his statement. These politicians negotiate international politics in a provoking manner in order to heighten political and military tensions between Japan and North Korea, rather than working with the United States closely to open the country, as initiated by the Japan-North Korea normalization talks. What is implied by their behavior?

Fast Breeder Reactor and reprocessing plant

As is known widely, Japan is still pursuing the development of the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR); an obsolete technology that has been abandoned by many countries around the globe. Japan's experimental FBR, Monju, suffered a sodium leak accident in the secondary cooling system during the experimental test in 1995. Since then, the experimental operation Monju has been halted for more than 7 years in order to try to resolve the cause of the accident. However, last December the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) permitted the modification of the reactor to prevent a re-occurrence of the accident. Additional tens of billions of yen will be necessary for the modification work. Why can such an economically unjustified and worthless project be sustained?

The Monju FBR is designed to burn plutonium fuel in the reactor core and to 'breed' plutonium-239 by having a neutron absorbed into the blanket fuel composed of uranium-238, which fills the reactor core. Another reprocessing facility, the Recycle Equipment Test Facility (RETF), built to reprocess the blanket fuel has been under construction since 1995. It is technically and practically possible for Japan to use plutonium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, what is not clear with regard to Japan's nuclear policy is that, not only the experimental reprocessing plant at Tokai owned and operated by the Japan Nuclear Fuel Cycle Development, but also the large-scale commercial reprocessing plant at Rokkasho were constructed despite the clear fact that there is an almost total lack of demand for plutonium in the private sphere.

The necessity for the Rokkasho reprocessing plant has been questioned even by electric power companies, which bore most of the construction costs, and its construction had been suspended for a long time. Recently, however, the construction of the plant has proceeded at a quick pace and it is expected that a trial operation (hot experiment), which involves treatment of radioactive materials, will be implemented in the summer of 2003. The construction cost of this plant is estimated to reach an astonishing 2,100 billion yen! ($17.5 billion).

Everything is secret

In the reprocessing plant, a large volume of spent fuel is treated chemically by dissolving it in nitric acid (HNO3) and organic solvents. It has been pointed out that those substances could cause fire or explosions, and/or trigger a criticality accident in the event of criticality control failure. The law suit against the initiation of operations of the Rokkasho plant has been continuing at the Aomori District Court, where appeals have been made against the possible dangers arising from the operation of the reprocessing plant.

The plaintiffs sought the agreement of the Court to perform an inspection of the equipment used for the production line in the facility before they are exposed to radiation The Court has accepted the plaintiffs' request and the inspection test is expected to be conducted this April. However, the government has notified the Court that it could not allow the inspection to take place because they said they will be unable to obtain the necessary consent from French government to permit a judge to enter the facility.

The excuse of the danger of nuclear proliferation

While the efforts have been underway to force disclosure of information concerning the contents of the facility, where even the Court is not permitted to enter, it is extremely difficult for citizens to know what has been going on inside the plant. The argument of a nuclear-armed Japan becomes mainstream policy debate. It is generally considered that the Japanese bureaucratic system, characterized by a desire for the preservation of the present system, has allowed obsolete and uneconomical projects to continue. However, with Japanese state finances weakening, and the power companies concerned about their ability to compete in the international market, the driving force behind the plutonium and uranium reprocessing project cannot be fully explained simply by the logic of the bureaucratic system.

In their remarks about the 'declaration of a nuclear-armed Japan' in the opinion magazine, Voice, published in January 2003, political commentators, Kazuya Fukuda and Terumasa Nakanishi announced their views of a hawkish foreign policy. In the article, Nakanishi, a professor at Kyoto University, argues, 'the best way to prevent North Korea from launching a nuclear missile is for the Prime Minister (of Japan) to declare that Japan will be armed with nuclear weapons immediately.' They propose the establishment of a missile defense system to deal with the situation. Current circumstances surrounding the state of journalism in Japan are sinking far beyond what we thought they would go a few years ago. It is doubtful that the Bush administration has the will to prevent the nuclear armament of Japan. Given the current political situation, it is reasonable to assume that Japan's nuclear armament program has started secretly inside the government body.

Japan's nuclear weapon manufacturing capacity

In what degree does Japan possess the ability to produce nuclear weapons? On the one hand, Japan possesses the technology related to uranium enrichment, the fast breeder reactor, and nuclear fuel reprocessing technology, and it has also committed resources to rocket technology, which can be transferred to the manufacturing of nuclear-armed missiles. It is fair to conclude that Japan has the technical ability to be armed with nuclear weapons.

Normally, plutonium is reprocessed with uranium as a mixed plutonium oxide fuel; it is generally prohibited to extract plutonium as a pure substance. However, plutonium can be easily extracted by closing the cock on the denitration pipes entering the mixing vessel where the reprocessed uranium and plutonium are mixed. The decision - to manufacture plutonium - would be up to the politicians and operators, and would depend on the degree of accuracy - and severity - of inspection procedures by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Practically, however, Japan could prepare nuclear weapons within a few months if it acquired consent from the United States, according to an expert on nuclear technology. Perhaps the meaning of activities to stop the reprocessing facility need to be re-defined from protecting and ensuring the safety of local residents, to prevent of the government's attempt to arm Japan with nuclear weapons.

Courage to dismantle a 'ring' from the world

The government, currently criticizing the neighboring countries for their violation of the Non Proliferation Treaty, would certainly lose their grounds for this claim. Nuclear weapons are now the 'ring' that causes humans to lose their senses. We should not fall into the logic of power politics which says: 'if they have the weapon, we have to have it, too.' Japan has chosen to hold to the Three Non Nuclear Principles which stem from the painful experience at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the war in Iraq has started, the ideology of the three non-nuclear principles has been severely tested. Only the intelligence and courage of humans can abolish nuclear weapons. Even though the power and ability of each one of us is small, this is the path we wish to walk.

Figure: The location of Rokkasho reprocessing plant and other facilities

Click for a larger image

See CNIC's proliferation page for other links

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