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Thinking the Unthinkable

Japanese nuclear power and proliferation in East Asia

by Frank Barnaby and Shaun Burnie

(a joint publication of the Oxford Research Group and CNIC)

This pamphlet was released in English and Japanese on 4 August 2005 at the opening of the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs conference in Hiroshima. The conference marked the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Download English pdf file (264KB)

Click here for the Japanese translation.

Forward by Michiaki Furukawa, Emeritus Professor of Nagoya University and member of CNIC's board of directors

I read this paper, in which Frank Barnaby and Shaun Burnie discuss the possibility of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons, with great interest. Below is an outline of the main points covered, followed by a few of my own comments on the matter.

The paper begins with a brief discussion of the sixty-year history since the dropping of the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. It then looks at Japan's own attempts to acquire plutonium. America's role in this was very significant. It required a great deal of negotiation in order for Japan to obtain America's approval to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

The paper then looks at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture, which is currently proceeding towards start-up. The key issues here are the problems associated with the protection of nuclear materials and the fact that there is almost no use for the plutonium that will be separated.

In regard to the first of these issues, the significant point is made that inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency are ineffective. It is difficult to even determine the quantity of plutonium contained in the spent fuel that enters the plant.

In regard to the second issue, the problem is that Japan has failed in its attempt to develop fast breeder reactors (FBR) and the plan to use a mixed oxide of plutonium and uranium (MOX) as fuel in light water reactors is not proceeding according to plan. (In Japan this is referred to as the 'pluthermal' program.) Consequently, there is no end use for the plutonium.

Finally the report looks at the possibility that Japan might acquire nuclear weapons. This is a delicate issue connected to both international and domestic politics and people will have different views about it. However, this report is a good opportunity for Japanese people to find out what non-Japanese experts think about the issue.

There are plenty of people in Japan who are willing to talk about the development of nuclear weapons in other countries, but few Japanese people are keen to discuss the possibility of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons. It is painful to think hard about this issue. In my own case, it isn't that I don't think about it. It is rather that I fear that public opinion could suddenly swing in the wrong direction and the Japanese public could actually end up accepting nuclear weapons. It is also worth bearing in mind the fact that, as this report points out, in countries which have had nuclear weapons programs, the general public was not involved in the debate.

Looking at the history of nuclear energy, the large-scale release of nuclear energy began with nuclear weapons. This was the case for all the so-called great powers. The consequences of this continue to this day.

Returning to the question of plutonium, in order to make nuclear weapons either highly enriched uranium or plutonium is required. However, it is no easy matter to produce highly enriched uranium. To produce enough to make a nuclear weapon requires a great deal of time and technological skill. It was very difficult to produce the highly enriched uranium used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima 60 years ago. In comparison, it is relatively easy to produce plutonium. It is necessary to process highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, but the principles of chemical separation are easy to understand and it is easy to carry it out. In fact, the majority of the world's atomic bombs use plutonium.

The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is moving towards start-up, but the important issues raised in this report have received little attention in Japan. Clearly the issue of nuclear weaponisation is more than just a technical question. A full analysis of the matter is beyond my expertise. For that reason, I hope people from a wide range of disciplines will give attention to the issue.

Looking at the domestic political drivers behind Japan's rush to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, in my opinion the reason for this is simple. The power companies have promised the prefectures where nuclear power plants are located that they will remove the spent fuel from the prefecture. This is central government policy. However, Aomori Prefecture, where the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is located, won't hold spent fuel for long periods of time if it is not going to be reprocessed. So the question arises, "What is to be done with the spent fuel?"

The end use of the separated plutonium is an equally intractable problem. I have had the opportunity to observe the deliberations of the Nuclear Policy-Planning Council. During these deliberations development of FBR was discussed. Those who spoke in favour of FBR fell into a few clearly identifiable categories: the president of the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (the organization responsible for development of FBR), the vice-chancellor of Fukui University (the Monju FBR is located in Fukui Prefecture), and a few professors who work in the nuclear fuel cycle field. There wasn't a word from the presidents of the power companies. This is because they don't want anything to do with FBR. They don't want to be lumbered with the huge costs that it entails.

As for the other stated end use of Japan's growing stockpile of plutonium, I believe that there is not a single power company in Japan that really wants to proceed with the pluthermal program. It is difficult to get documentary proof of this, but everyone familiar with the situation believes this to be the case.

I commend this timely paper to everyone interested in the problems of nuclear energy in the broadest sense and hope it will be read by large numbers of people.

Michiaki Furukawa
August 2005


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