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NPT Review Conference

Japan's inconsistency: calling for nuclear non-proliferation while extracting plutonium


Scenes from a New York crowd (photos by Atsuko Nogawa)
The Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is being held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from May 2nd through May 27th. Recent trends regarding the nuclear non-proliferation issue were introduced in the previous issue of NIT. To summarize the vital point of concern: with regards to the technology for uranium enrichment and plutonium extraction (i.e. reprocessing), there are limits to the possibility of drawing a clear distinction between military use and commercial use. The seriousness of this issue can be seen in the fact that successive reports voicing concerns on this issue have been released: for example, an experts' report, Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, commissioned by IAEA Director General ElBaradei (who is in the position of administrating the commercial use of nuclear technology); the UN's Report of the Secretary General's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, and a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security.

NPT Review Conference
On the opening day of the conference, Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, speaking of uranium enrichment and reprocessing technology, warned:

"The [NPT] regime will not be sustainable if scores more States develop the most sensitive phases of the fuel cycle and are equipped with the technology to produce nuclear weapons on short notice - and, of course, each individual State which does this only will leave others to feel that they must do the same. This would increase all the risks - of nuclear accident, of trafficking, of terrorist use, and of use by states themselves."

IAEA Director General ElBaradei, in a statement similar to those reported in the media previously, emphasized the need for "better control over proliferation sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle: activities that involve uranium enrichment and plutonium separation". In addition, ten nations, including Australia and Canada, submitted a document welcoming the abovementioned experts' report and recommending further exploration of issues and options for multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle.

At the time this article was written, the Conference had just begun. Speeches made by each country had just finished. Further developments are yet unknown. In particular, the US accusation that Iran is engaging in nuclear development under the disguise of peaceful use, and Iran's rebuttal that limitations to peaceful use violate the spirit of the NPT, are inviting disorder.

Nevertheless, as stated above, it can be said that the difficulty of distinguishing between military and commercial use of nuclear technology is a shared opinion. Materials on the conference are being published on the UN's NPT website:

UCS Declaration
On May 5th, soon after the start of the conference, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) made an important declaration. This declaration, "A Call on Japan to Strengthen the NPT by Indefinitely Postponing Operation of the Rokkasho Spent Fuel Reprocessing Plant," questions Japan's commitment to strengthening the NPT, given that operation of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant would produce eight metric tons of plutonium annually. The text of this statement can be viewed at the following URL:

Cartoon by Shoji Takagi

This declaration was signed by four Nobel Laureates in Physics, a National Medal of Science Laureate, and famous scientists of well-known universities. Signatories include William J. Perry (former U.S. Secretary of Defense), Peter Bradford (former Commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission), former high-ranking officials of the U.S. Departments of Energy, Defense and State of both Republican and Democratic administrations, and Directors Emeritus from both the Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Other than the content, this declaration is also significant in that it was released from the United States, which, due to the threat of terrorism, is in a state of heightened sensitivity to the nuclear non-proliferation issue.

In addition to mass media representatives from Japan and around the world, scientists and people from NGOs also participated in the press conference for the release of this declaration. Professor Frank von Hippel (Princeton University) warned that, with Rokkasho operational, by 2020 Japan's domestic stock of plutonium could equal the U.S. stockpile of weapons plutonium. Hideyuki Ban, CNIC Co-Director and member of Japan's Long-term Nuclear Program Planning Committee, challenged the status quo of Japan's peculiar nuclear power policy. The participants seemed to react favorably to this type of claim against Japan. It seems that there are quite a few cases of other countries utilizing to their favor the fact that despite being a non-nuclear weapon state, Japan is conducting reprocessing. If Japan were to accept this declaration, it would probably have a greater impact on the world than people imagine.

On a separate note, in response to this declaration, signatures from well-known people in Japan are being collected. The aim of this effort is to bring together the voices of people working on peace and disarmament issues. Results of this effort will be released in a press conference planned for May 24th, during the final stage of the NPT conference. The press conference will be held at the same UN building in New York.

So what will be the response of the Japanese government? The Foreign Minister Machimura's statement regarding peaceful use makes a very weak impression compared to his assertions on nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation issues. This weakness results from the inconsistency between the claims regarding nuclear non-proliferation and the assertion that Japan alone may continue with the nuclear fuel cycle. By contrast, the document released by Australia and other countries emphasizes the need for a "nondiscriminatory approach".

If Japan continues to make assertions from the standpoint of a country victimized by nuclear weapons, it must sooner or later find a solution to the inconsistencies of its present situation. If Japan would, of its own accord, give up its claim to an "inalienable right" to reprocessing, the debate within the NPT Review Conference over the nuclear fuel cycle would become much clearer. Also, Iran and other countries would no longer be able to make strong assertions in the face of a bold move such as this by Japan.

Considering the failure of the fast breeder reactor program, the Rokkasho reprocessing project will only produce unnecessary plutonium, the use of which is uncertain. Further, when compared with plutonium, uranium is neither highly priced nor is it scarce as a resource. Furthermore, the government also recognizes that direct disposal is economically less expensive when compared to reprocessing. The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is laden with great inconsistencies, not only from the viewpoint of nuclear power, but also, as made clear in the UCS declaration, from the viewpoint of nuclear non-proliferation.

Tadahiro Katsuta (CNIC)

See CNIC's proliferation page for other links

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