The Threat of a Nuclear Japan: ‘Terrifying but Not Surprising’
August 23, 2002

By Satomi Oba

Japan's Ikata Nuclear Power Plant on Shikoku Island
JAPAN — In early April, Ichiro Ozawa, leader of Japan’s opposition party, infuriated Japan's neighboring countries by stating that Japan was capable of building thousands of nuclear warheads using plutonium generated in commercial nuclear reactors. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda's comment on the possibility that Japan' may abandon its three non-nuclear principles thoroughly terrified people here and elsewhere. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi responded to the widespread outrage with an immediate denial. But has the problem really gone way?

When we look at history of Japan's military and nuclear development under the US-Japan military alliance, such comments are terrifying but not surprising. The Three Non-nuclear Principles of "not possessing, not producing, and not allowing nuclear arms on its soil," have long been thought a basic policy of the Japanese government. But everyone knows that these three basic rules have been clearly violated by the presence of the US military forces in Japan's territory.

Who can deny the existence of nuclear weapons when US nuclear-armed submarines and aircraft carriers visit Yokosuka, Iwakuni, Sasebo, or Okinawa? And a report from Too Nippo, a local newspaper, recently revealed that the US Air Force base at Misawa in the Aomori Prefecture, had been used as a base for US nuclear weapons targeting Russia, China and North Korea.

There is also the question of nuclear powerplants. Japan has already obtained advanced technologies for developing nuclear weapons through the so-called "peaceful atom" and is even developing missiles capable of carrying such weapons.

As Mr. Ozawa honestly stated, tons of plutonium produced in Japan’s 51 commercial reactors could be used to create nuclear weapons. Japan has built 53 reactors. The first one, Tokai No1, is now being dismantled and the Monju fast-breeder reactor (FBR) was closed after a fire in 1995. Construction of a huge reprocessing plant in Rokkashomura in Aomori Prefecture is almost completed and set to start operation in a few years.

India developed a nuclear device through such a "peaceful program." While Israel has not officially declared that it has nuclear weapons, most are convinced it does. Is it really likely that only Japan would be an exception?

Staying true to a non-nuclear policy is the sincere desire of the majority of Japanese people, especially the atomic bombs survivors. However, we are very close to being a declared member of the Nuclear Club, due to the facilities that we have developed despite the Three Non-nuclear Principles. Japanese policy has never prohibited nuclear energy. Ironically, promoting nuclear energy has been one of our government's major policies.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibits non-nuclear nations from developing nuclear weapons (and also obligates the five nuclear nations, US, UK, France, China and Russia, to end their nuclear weapons programs and to take affirmative steps to achieve nuclear disarmament). But the fact is there are really eight de facto nuclear weapons states, if you count Israel, India and Pakistan. No one was able to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons. So, what's to prevent Japan from doing likewise? Fukuda's unofficial comment may have been the signal that Japan is prepared to declare itself a nuclear state.

Every Nuclear Reactor Produces Plutonium
Nuclear energy offers an attractive way for nations to become part of the Nuclear Club. The International Atomic Energy Agency supports nations in their efforts to develop commercial nuclear technology and such nations can easily obtain enriched uranium and nuclear reactors from nuclear countries. An international system exists for the education of nuclear workers and the exchange of information on nuclear technologies. Further, nuclear states are always searching for new customers to buy their nuclear materials and technologies. Thus, this path is an easier method of obtaining nuclear weapons than through secret development programs or through smuggling.

Every nuclear reactor produces plutonium. The uranium fuel for the commercial reactors is usually enriched to 3 to 4 percent of fissile U-235, leaving a large part of the remainder as U-238.

While burning in the reactors, U-238 is continuously transformed into plutonium 239. The Hiroshima bomb consisted of highly enriched U-235. The major ingredient of the Nagasaki bomb was plutonium, an extraordinarily toxic substance with a half-life of 24,000 years. Experts say that with the modern advanced technology, a mere 2 kilograms of plutonium could be enough to build a bomb.

Reprocessing — A Dirty and Dangerous Process
Reprocessing is the method of separating plutonium from the spent fuel of nuclear reactors. When Jimmy Carter was president, nonproliferation was one of his basic policies and he tried to prohibit Japan from large-scale reprocessing. That is why the Tokai reprocessing plant in Tokaimura, Ibaragi Prefecture, was limited to handling only 120 tons of spent fuel per year.

Japanese utilities proceeded to sign additional reprocessing contracts with British and French companies — BNFL in Sellafield and COGEMA in La Hague. Japan has sent 7,000 tons of spent fuel from all around Japan across the oceans for reprocessing. Japan's current plutonium stockpile is reported to be about 20 tons, mostly kept in Europe and awaiting shipment to Japan. But transportation of such a toxic and sensitive cargo — guarded by armed vessels and with little liability in case of an accident — has caused international controversy.

Reprocessing is an unbelievably dirty and dangerous process that employs a strong solution of nitric acid to extract plutonium from spent fuel rods. Reprocessing generates a deadly "soup" of high-level radioactive wastes that must be stored safely under strict monitoring so as not to leak into the air, soil or underground water for an extremely long time. After the September 11 attack, is frightening to think what would happen if a reprocessing plant were ever struck by terrorists.

Germany and Belgium have stopped reprocessing. Reprocessing and construction of fast-breeder reactors are strictly prohibited in the Korean Peninsula. Only the nuclear weapons states of Britain, France, Russia and India still have reprocessing plants in operation. Although the US abandoned reprocessing, under the Bush administration, it may be reconsidered as an option.

When the Rokkasho reprocessing plant starts operations in about 2005, it will have the capacity to separate up to eight tons of plutonium from 800 tons of spent fuel per year. According to the government's long-range plan approved in November 2000, Japan would eventually obtain 450 tons of plutonium. This figure is more than extravagant — it is insane. If the Rokkasho reprocessing plant starts, it will become one of the worst contamination sources in Japan, continually discharging radioactive substances to the air, land and sea (as has already happened at Sellafield and La Hague).

Fast-breeder Reactors and Super Weapons-grade Plutonium
Japan has two fast breeder reactors (FBR), the Monju prototype reactor in the Fukui Prefecture, which faces toward Korea, and the Joyo experimental reactor near Tokaimura. Monju has been shut down since a sodium leak and fire occurred in December 1995.

Unlike conventional reactors, FBRs use plutonium as fuel. Since the very beginning of nuclear energy development, the FBR held out a potential of achieving the scientific dream of producing more plutonium than is consumed.

Because of the technological difficulties of handling large amounts of plutonium and sodium, the high operating expense of FBRs, and the fear of nuclear proliferation, many countries withdrew from FBR development. The US gave up early on, Germany abandoned its program in 1991, Britain shut its prototype reactor in 1994. Even France dismantled its Superphoenix — the largest and the most advanced FBR in the world — in 1998, after a long and troubled history.

Japan is located in a seismically active region. The structure of an FBR is more complicated and fragile than conventional light-water reactors and much more vulnerable to earthquakes. There are active faults near the Monju reactor in Fukui. We all can recollect how scared we were to see the damage caused when an earthquake hit Kobe City in January 1995.

Despite these risks, Japan is trying to restart the Monju.

Usually, plutonium that is more than 93 percent pure is called “weapons-grade.” In Tokaimura, construction of an innocently named Recycle Equipment Test Facility (RETF) was secretly started. The facility is designed to separate plutonium from spent fuel from fast breeder reactors. If spent fuel from the Monju were extracted at the RETF, it would be about 97-98 percent pure, which is “superweapons-grade” plutonium.

In 1994, Greenpeace International revealed that sensitive nuclear technologies had been illegally transferred to Japan from at least five nuclear weapons laboratories in the US, including Los Alamos, Hanford and Savannah River. The transfers included criticality control and remote control technologies that are essential for handling plutonium of high purity.

Rockets as Carriers of Nuclear Warheads
Like the nuclear fuel cycle, space development also has two sides — commercial and military. They are two sides of the same coin. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, TRW, and the Hughes Corporation are involved in both commercial and military missions at the same time. They produce commercial satellites and spy satellites. They build the Titan II ICBM, the space shuttle, and even space-based laser weapons.

Japan has tested H2 rockets since 1994. The series ended up with repeated failures in 1998 and 1999. But the National Space Development Agency (NASDA) has started a new series of tests of the H2A rocket. Although the government insists that it is developing a space program for peaceful purposes, some experts have pointed out that H2 rockets are really ICBMs capable of carrying nuclear payloads thousands of miles across the ocean.

This February, Japan successfully test-launched the H2A 2024, a 50-meter (164-foot) rocket able to lift a satellite weighing two tons. Tipped with nuclear warheads, H2A rockets could be converted to ICBMs.

Beyond illusions: The Need for Vigillance
The people of Japan should not naively trust that the "peaceful" uses of technologies in nuclear or space fields have no military applications. We should not indulge the beautiful illusion offered by a token policy of The Three Non-nuclear Principles. We should become aware of the current dangerous facts. The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not guarantee the government's peaceful policy at all.

Japan's Three Non-nuclear Principles have long represented the true desire of the Japanese people for a nuclear-weapons-free world. However, if we continue to dismiss the deep connection between commercial and military programs, I fear that the words, "Three Non-nuclear Principles," may become an empty phrase.

The Japanese people's committed vigilance is essential in monitoring the government's activities and in stopping its commercial and military nuclear programs. It is especially important in order to end the reprocessing and fast-breeder programs that are casting shadows on northeastern Asia. If such programs are allowed to continue, nonproliferation efforts in the Korean Peninsula will be totally nullified and the world will be taking a giant step closer to nuclear devastation.

Satomi Oba is the director of Plutonium Action Hiroshima, a member of Global Council of Abolition 2000, and a member of advisory board of Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. Contact Plutonium Action Hiroshima at: 1673-17 Ichikawa, Siraki-cho, Asakita-ku 739-14, Hiroshima City, Japan, Tel: +81-82-828 2603, Fax: +81-82-828 2603. A longer version of this essay originally appeared in Sisa Journal, one of South Korea’s major weekly newsmagazines. Our thanks to editor Park Seong Jun for permission to post this article on The-Edge.

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