U.S. Declaration of “No First Use” and Japan’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Why is Japan able to restrain the U.S. nuclear policy shift?

By Matsukubo Hajime (CNIC)

The U.S. Biden Administration is currently working on the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). This work commenced in early July and is expected to be completed in early 2022. NPR signifies a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, strategy and posture over the past five to ten years. This review has been conducted by each administration since 1994.

The most notable point of the Biden Administration’s NPR is whether or not they will adopt the “No first use nuclear policy” and a policy known as “sole purpose.” This is because President Biden has thus far repeatedly expressed his support for these two policies.

What is the purpose of theNo First Use” and “Sole Purpose” policies?

“No First Use” refers to a policy by a nuclear power not to use its nuclear weapons first unless it is attacked with nuclear weapons by an adversary, when it then reserves the right to retaliate with nuclear weapons. When attacked with conventional, biological or chemical weapons, the nuclear power should not fight back with nuclear weapons. Among the nuclear power nations, China and India have already adopted this policy.

“Sole Purpose” means the policy of a nuclear power to restrict the use of its nuclear weapons to deterring a nuclear attack on its territory. The Obama Administration mentioned this concept in its 2010 NPR as a future target for U.S. nuclear policy.

“First Use,” on the other hand, means that a nuclear power launches a nuclear attack first, before the adversary does so in warfare. In this case, the nuclear power retains the option of using its nuclear weapons against attacks with conventional, biological or chemical weapons. There is also a similar term, “First Strike.” This means a nuclear power may launch a preemptive nuclear strike, inflicting overwhelming damage on the enemy’s nuclear capability, and depriving them of power to retaliate.

Some experts say “No First Use” and “Sole Purpose” have almost the same meaning, but others say they are different. The latter group maintains that “Sole Purpose” allows a nuclear power to make a preemptive attack when the launch of a nuclear attack on the nation by its adversary appears imminent. In any case, both “No First Use” and “Sole Purpose” are extremely effective for minimizing the role of nuclear weapons and reducing the risk of a nuclear war.

Obama Administration discussed a plan to declare “No First Use” in 2016

In the summer of 2016, when the official term of President Obama was about to end, his administration discussed a plan to declare “No First Use” as a legacy of his administration. This plan, however, did not come to fruition. According to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, the primary reason for this unsuccessful attempt was that the administration was worried about subsequent moves that were likely to be made by its allies, especially Japan and South Korea. The U.S. Secretary of State at the time, John Kerry, indicated that the two countries might try to arm themselves with nuclear weapons if they lost confidence in U.S. deterrent capabilities.

This concern is cited by the U.S. organizations and groups supporting the U.S. nuclear policy status quo when they try to justify their position against “No First Use.” Not only these organizations but also some U.S. government officials have harbored the same concern for many years. For example, the 1965 Gilpatric Report, compiled by the Committee on Nuclear Proliferation, in discussing the influence of China’s successful nuclear weapons tests, pointed out that these tests would stimulate the ambitions of India and Japan to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. The report stated that, if necessary, to prevent Japan from arming itself with nuclear weapons, the U.S. administration should reconfirm its pledges concerning its current defense strategy and strengthen bilateral ties with Japan. This policy is basically maintained even now.

The Japanese government is fully aware of the U.S. concern and even takes advantage of it at times. Sato Yukio, who served as Director of the Foreign Ministry’s American Affairs Bureau and Japanese Ambassador to the United Nations, and who was also engaged in negotiations on national security and arms control, said in his book titled The Umbrella Held over Japan that “it is impossible to totally dispel foreign countries’ concerns regarding Japan’s armaments.” He also said “This is my personal view, but the current situation where there remains some concern over Japan’s armaments in the U.S. is not totally a bad thing. This is because the major reason why the United States is providing Japan with protection under its nuclear umbrella is presumably to prevent Japan’s nuclear armament.”

Potential nuclear armament capability and its influence

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Rodney Schlesinger testified in a U.S. Congress hearing on May 6, 2009 that “Japan… is the country that has, perhaps, the greatest leaning amongst the 30-odd nations that we have under the umbrella, to create its own nuclear force.” Kerry’s comment seems to be very similar to Schlesinger’s. These views are based on Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle.

Of all the non-nuclear-power nations, Japan is the only country that has both spent nuclear fuel reprocessing technology and uranium enrichment technology. Using reprocessing technology, Japan is capable of separating plutonium from spent nuclear fuel and making new fuel that can be used for nuclear weapons. With the low-enriched uranium production technology, Japan would be able to produce highly enriched uranium that can be used for nuclear weapons.

Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle makes it possible for the country to interfere with U.S. nuclear policy. Tanaka Nobuo, a former Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) official who served as Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), and Chairman of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, has maintained that nuclear power is necessary not only for electric power generation but also for national security and defense. He said this in the May 2018 issue of The Japan Atomic Energy Society Journal, ATOMOΣ. He also said Japan experienced the devastation of atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and has absolutely no intention of possessing nuclear weapons. But he added that the current situation is that nuclear missiles from North Korea are flying over Japanese territory, and insisted that Japan would be looked down on and deceived by North Korea if Japan were to abandon its nuclear capability. Thus, he did not hesitate to reveal Japan’s potential power to possess nuclear weapons.

Recent remarks by Japanese government officials on the “No First Use” policy

Recently, Japanese government leaders have expressed the following views on “No First Use” and nuclear deterrence.

Remark 1

Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu stated in a press conference on April 6, 2021 that a number of nations with large-scale and high-quality military capabilities are located around Japan, and that they are showing a distinct tendency to build up their power further and to intensify their military activities.… As long as Japan continues to experience threats to its national security, such as by the nuclear weapons possessed by those nations, it is absolutely necessary for our nation to seek expansion of the U.S. deterrence system under the Japan-U.S. security arrangements, including the nuclear deterrence system.

Remark 2

Former Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu made the following comment in the Lower House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on April 21, 2021. “As for a declaration of the ‘No First Use’ policy of nuclear weapons…. it may not function unless all the nuclear powers simultaneously implement such a policy in a verifiable manner…. Under the current circumstances, it would be difficult for Japan to take all possible measures to ensure its national security by simply relying on the policy of a nuclear power when we have no measures to verify that nation’s intentions. With regard to this way of thinking, I feel that there is no inconsistency between that of Japan and the U.S.”

To sum up the Japanese government’s view, 1) the expanded deterrence, that includes nuclear deterrence, is intended against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, as well as conventional weapons, 2) therefore, the “No First Use” declaration alone does not ensure safety of the Japanese nation. Moreover, 3) “No First Use” should be declared simultaneously by all nuclear powers in a verifiable manner, and 4) there is no inconsistency between the perception of the U.S. and that of Japan on this point.

As the only nation in the world to suffer an A-bomb attack, Japan has acknowledged itself as a mediator between the nuclear powers and non-nuclear nations, and has called for attainment of the ultimate goal of the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Japan thus demands that the U.S. administration deter attacks using conventional weapons by its enemies by threatening to retaliate with nuclear weapons. In addition, although the Biden Administration is aiming to issue the “No First Use” declaration unilaterally, the insistence by Japan that “No First Use” should be simultaneously implemented by all nuclear powers in a verifiable manner considerably raises the barrier against implementation of this policy.

Written request jointly submitted by 22 organizations and 44 individuals

In some countries, citizens’ groups and intellectuals have launched moves to demand that the Biden Administration include the “No First Use” policy in its 2021 “Nuclear Posture Review.” Their aim is to prevent a recurrence of the unfortunate situation caused by the Obama Administration in 2016. On August 9 this year, 21 U.S. anti-nuclear experts and five organizations jointly sent a request to the leaders of Japan’s major political parties calling on the leaders not to oppose the U.S. government’s declaration of “No First Use” and “Sole Purpose” policy. They also demanded that the political parties should not raise the risk of Japan’s nuclear armament. Meanwhile, an anti-nuclear organization and other groups in Australia jointly sent a letter to the Australian government requesting that their government not object to the U.S. “No First Use” and “Sole Purpose” policies.

Amidst this situation, 22 Japanese anti-nuclear organizations and 44 Japanese individuals jointly sent a similar request to the leaders of Japanese political parties on September 7, 2021. CNIC along with four other organizations and five individuals proposed this joint action, and a further 17 other organizations and 39 individuals also decided to participate. They asked the political parties not to oppose the U.S. government’s declaration of “No First Use” and “Sole Purpose” policies, and to pledge that these policies would not raise the risk of Japan’s nuclear armament.

In view of the situation where the candidates of the political parties did not refer to the policy of “No First Use” in the latest lower house election campaigns, the Japanese groups and organizations also sent an open letter to ask the political parties about their response to “No First Use.”

It would be scandalous if the U.S. Administration should fail to adopt the “No First Use” policy due to opposition from their Japanese counterparts. Thus, Japan’s moves will become extremely important when the U.S. administration decides on this policy, and we are determined to continue to implement our joint action.

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