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Rokkasho and Proliferation Revisited

In each of the past two years, around this time Nuke Info Tokyo has included an article raising the question of whether Japan might some day acquire nuclear weapons (NIT 93, and NIT 99). These articles focused in particular on suspicions regarding Japanese intentions, as evidenced by statements of senior government politicians and others. This article will not rehearse these suspicions in detail. After reviewing some relevant international political developments, it will consider whether Japan is capable of producing nuclear weapons and the international implications of such a capability.

The article in NIT 99 (March/April 2004) took as its starting point the following statement by George Bush: "The 40 nations of the Nuclear Suppliers Group should refuse to sell enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technologies to any state that does not already possess full-scale functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants." (11 February 2004) Since Bush's statement, other prominent people have made similar proposals. Mahomed El Baradei proposed a five-year moratorium on constructing uranium enrichment and reprocessing facilities (5 January 2005) and Kofi Annan's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change made the same call without specifying a time frame for the moratorium (2 December 2004). These calls come in the lead up to the NPT Review Conference, to be held in May.

While a moratorium is obviously a good idea, the proponents envisage internationalizing the supply of enriched uranium and reprocessing services and guaranteeing supply to countries which abide by IAEA rules. Every page of the 105 issues of NIT that CNIC has produced so far testify to our opposition to nuclear energy per se, so we will not discuss this internationalization proposal further here. But the recognition by these prominent people that uranium enrichment and reprocessing create major proliferation risks and that the current system is inadequate to deal with these risks should be applauded. On the face of it, the moratorium would appear to apply to Japan's Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, currently undergoing uranium tests, but the people proposing the moratorium have all studiously avoided making this link. They haven't made their views on the matter public, so we won't speculate about what they are thinking, except to note that Kofi Annan's High-level Panel refers to "a guarantee of the supply of fissile materials by the current suppliers at market rates." Since Japan is not a current supplier, there is no obvious reason why it should be exempted from the moratorium.

The issue of whether a moratorium should be placed on reprocessing at Rokkasho essentially revolves around two questions. Firstly, could operation of Rokkasho lead to Japan acquiring nuclear weapons and secondly, might it encourage others to acquire nuclear weapons? This article attempts to answer these two questions, but first a comment on the relative importance of considering capabilities as opposed to intentions.

As a peace activist in Australia, I discovered that it was necessary to consistently critique the Defence Department's claim that it looks at capabilities rather than intentions when assessing military threats. An assessment that only looks at one side of the equation is unbalanced. The focus on capability in this article should therefore be seen as a balance to the articles that have appeared in past issues of NIT, rather than as a denial of the significance of the intentions of some Japanese politicians. Indeed, North Korea's recent declaration that it has nuclear weapons, regardless of whether or not it should be taken at face value, is likely to strengthen the position of those within the Japanese political establishment who would like to open up the debate about Japan becoming a nuclear weapon state, a debate which has until now been kept at the level of vague allusions.

So is Japan capable of building nuclear weapons? El Baradei clearly thinks so. He has said that up to forty countries possess that capability. This figure is apparently based on the existence of nuclear facilities in those countries (commercial or research) and a pool of technological skills. Japan certainly has the facilities and the technological skills. It also has the fissile material and the capability to produce more fissile material at will. This comes from its possession of highly enriched uranium for research reactors, a uranium enrichment plant and the reprocessing facility at Tokai Village, which, despite being a developmental level facility, has over a period of 25 years separated around seven tons of plutonium from spent fuel. If El Baradei is right then, other than political will, the only thing stopping Japan from producing nuclear weapons is IAEA safeguards. Before discussing these, however, first let us consider the claim often made by the Japanese government that its plutonium stockpile is reactor grade plutonium, not weapons grade plutonium.

The question of the potential to use plutonium extracted from spent fuel to make nuclear weapons is discussed in detail in the Report of the International MOX Assessment (IMA Project, CNIC 1997). This report quotes Robert Seldon of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory as follows: "All plutonium can be used directly in nuclear explosives. The concept of ... plutonium which is not suitable for explosives is fallacious. A high content of the plutonium 240 isotope (reactor-grade plutonium) is a complication, but not a preventative." (1976) Hans Blix, former IAEA Director General, had this to say: "The Agency considers high burn-up reactor-grade plutonium and in general plutonium of any isotopic composition ... to be capable of use in a nuclear explosive device. There is no debate on the matter in the Agency's Department of Safeguards." (1990) (see IMA Report page 92) Evidently then, Japan's plutonium could be used to make a nuclear weapon, even if the yield is lower and less predictable than for a weapon made of weapons grade plutonium (see table below).

Returning to the question of 'IAEA safeguards', most people, even the most skeptical and cynical, are probably lulled into a false sense of security when they hear this phrase. Such is the power of language. The language is almost never critiqued in the mainstream media, so few people ever find out what lies behind such a phrase. A News Watch article in NIT 101 discussed the effectiveness of IAEA safeguards at Rokkasho in some detail. To recap briefly, the conclusion was that, using the most advanced safeguards technology, each year enough plutonium to make at least 6 bombs could slip through the system without being detected. This is based on 8kg of plutonium to make one bomb and 50kg of plutonium unaccounted for. That this is a realistic figure is demonstrated by the fact that 30kg of plutonium could not be accounted for at Sellafield in 2004. The methods of measuring the quantities of plutonium going into the reprocessing plant and the quantities coming out are simply not accurate enough to ensure that these quantities will balance. This means that if small amounts of plutonium were deliberately diverted, the IAEA wouldn't notice. Furthermore, the checks are not carried out in real time, so even if it were possible to detect the diversion, enough plutonium could be removed before anyone noticed. Again, readers will find more on this in the IMA Report.

The inescapable conclusion is that if Japan wanted to make a nuclear weapon it could. Furthermore, there is a reasonable chance that it could keep this secret, even though all its known nuclear facilities are covered by IAEA safeguards. The fact that Japan has signed the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and implemented 'integrated safeguards' doesn't alter this situation, since the limitations on safeguards are not only a matter of access, they are also technical and probably insurmountable for a large scale reprocessing plant such as Rokkasho.

The answer to the first question posed above, whether the operation of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant could lead to Japan acquiring nuclear weapons, is clearly "yes", at least in terms of capability. In fact, Japan is already capable of making nuclear weapons, but Rokkasho will increase that capability and make international monitoring much more difficult. The second question was, might Rokkasho encourage others to acquire nuclear weapons? Although there is no way of knowing for sure whether the Rokkasho reprocessing plant has made or will make any difference to the decisions of others to produce nuclear weapons, it certainly provides them with excuses and justifications. We can argue that all their excuses and justifications are specious, but that is beside the point. Countries like North Korea and Iran repeatedly point to Japan, saying, "If Japan can have reprocessing and uranium enrichment, why can't we?" In Iran's case it can point to the double standards being applied and in North Korea's case it might also claim that it feels directly threatened. Their complaints don't have to be sincere. They strike a strong cord with countries outside the elite circles of the 'First World'. Most of these countries are very defensive about their 'right' to enjoy the benefits of the 'peaceful use' of nuclear technology. Rokkasho therefore provides an unhelpful example, which undermines the international consensus against proliferation.

An article about proliferation would be incomplete without a reference to the possibility of nuclear material being diverted to terrorists. The Japanese government has admitted that this is a risk by introducing legislation designed to strengthen protective measures against just such a threat. CNIC has warned that these measures bring us closer to the nuclear police state that we have long feared, besides which it is inconceivable that they will be fool proof anyway. Clearly the safest approach is not to separate the plutonium in the first place.

The fact that Rokkasho is a nuclear proliferation issue is not discussed much in Japan. Overseas NGOs often seem more concerned about Rokkasho's proliferation potential than Japanese. CNIC hopes that Rokkasho will not escape attention at the NPT Review Conference in May. We are aware that a seminar is being planned and that people from both Japanese and non-Japanese NGOs will attend. We are also aware that the Japanese government is very sensitive about this issue, so we sincerely hope that this seminar will be a great embarrassment to them.

Philip White (NIT Editor)

Typical (i.e. not invariable) isotopic compositions for different grades of plutonium

% in weapons grade
% in reactor grade
% in MOX fuel
(source IMA 1997, p.87)

See CNIC's proliferation page for other links

Return to NIT 105 contents


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