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Japan's Plutonium Policy and Nuclear Nonproliferation

Eiichi Katahara

Associate Professor
Kobe Gakuin University

 

Many people believe that Japan, as the world's only nation to have suffered the terrible consequences of atomic bombing, should naturally be in a unique position to play a leading role in promoting arms control and disarmament and in strengthening the global nonproliferation regime. There are, however, some serious impediments to Japan's playing a leading role in the field of nonproliferation. The principal impediment is Japan's pursuit of a plutonium-based autonomous nuclear fuel cycle with independent reprocessing capabilities and commercial breeder reactors. At a time when most of the Western democracies, including the United States, have abandoned civilian plutonium programs not just for nonproliferation reasons but for economic, environmental, and wider security reasons, Japan remains the most strongly committed to recycling plutonium and uranium for its nuclear energy programs. Unless Japan takes nonproliferation more seriously and rethinks its nuclear policy in a fundamental way, it could inadvertently precipitate plutonium stockpiles not just in Japan but also in Asia Pacific, thereby undermining the global nonproliferation regime.

Japan should therefore defer nuclear recycling policy and development of fast breeder reactors until uncertainties about the proliferation dangers are resolved. Japan should also take a leadership role in creating a regional nuclear cooperation regime such as PACATOM proposed by Robert Manning. The idea is not to legitimize nuclear fuel reprocessing in the region, but to promote a multilateral dialogue on nonproliferation and confidence-building measures, including safety measures and nuclear waste management. It is also necessary for Japan to further strengthen the transparency of nuclear energy programs and encourage an informed public debate. It is imperative that Japanese legislators as well as the Japanese public acquire an understanding of nonproliferation and the proliferation implications of Japan's plutonium policy.