The Post-Fukushima Arms Race?

The ironic consequence of Japan's disaster might be a more dangerous global nuclear landscape.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

The disaster that unfolded this spring at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station has transformed that nation’s debate about nuclear energy. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has signaled his support for efforts to eventually wean Japan from nuclear power — a position that is clearly resonating with a Japanese public that’s now rightly preoccupied with nuclear safety. But Tokyo’s domestic nuclear reticence needs to be taken far more seriously outside of Japan. The failure to couple Japan’s reaction to the Fukushima accident with tighter global nuclear-proliferation controls could subvert efforts to keep the bomb from spreading — and lead to an increasingly dangerous world.

Two little-noticed Japanese nuclear policy declarations suggest why. On July 14, Tokyo announced that it will suspend civilian nuclear cooperation talks with Brazil, India, South Africa, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. If Japan is set to impose stricter nuclear export rules, it will be a boon to efforts to foster tighter international rules as well.

Japan’s science minister, Yoshiaki Takaki, also declared that Japan might terminate its development of fast-breeder reactors, which are fueled with plutonium. This would also eliminate the rationale for operating Japan’s huge reprocessing plant for separating plutonium from spent fuel used in its currently operating reactors.

This reprocessed plutonium can be used both for energy production or to produce nuclear weapons. The projected annual production of plutonium from Japan’s planned reprocessing plant would be equivalent to 1,000 Nagasaki-sized (i.e., crude) bombs’ worth of nuclear-weapons-usable plutonium.

The weapons potential of this plutonium is an unspoken driver behind South Korea’s interest in getting into plutonium recycling, too. Seoul has long sought to keep up with every aspect of Japanese technology, including the most questionable and dangerous nuclear- and missile-related activities. If Tokyo were to terminate its fast-breeder and commercial plutonium reprocessing efforts, it would go a long way toward depriving Seoul of its argument.

And then, of course, there’s Beijing, which has deployed at least 200 nuclear weapons and is holding tons of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium in reserve, just in case it thinks it needs to deploy more as a hedge to "stay ahead" of anything its neighbors might deploy. If Japan stands down from producing more nuclear-weapons-usable plutonium, China’s need to hedge would naturally decline.

Ending plutonium recycling, though, won’t be easy for Japan. For starters, it would make a hash of the $20 billion that Japan has already poured into a large plutonium separation and fabrication center in the village of Rokkasho, north of Fukushima. It has been the dream of Japan’s still-powerful nuclear bureaucracy to ultimately base the country’s electricity generation on costly plutonium-fueled fast-breeder reactors: Although economically uncompetitive with conventional nuclear power systems, shifting to fast-breeder reactors would free Japan from having to import so much uranium.

Japan has been developing fast-reactor technology for decades, but it has not gone well. So far, Japan has only one small research facility, the Joyo reactor, and one medium-sized demonstration reactor, the Monju reactor, which has been offline for 14 years. This paltry commercial effort is why many see Japan’s plutonium program as really an effort to maintain a nuclear weapons option.

The situation is complicated by events in South Korea and China. After the latest round of North Korean military provocations, such as the March 2010 sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan and that November’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, Seoul’s interest in developing a nuclear weapons option has increased dramatically. It is pressing for U.S. permission to recycle plutonium from spent power-reactor fuel, originally supplied by the United States. Nuclear recycling would bring South Korea to the brink of being able to make bombs.

China, meanwhile, is seeking French help to build a massive plutonium separation facility at Jiayuguan, a major Chinese nuclear weapons production site. China already has nuclear weapons, but such a facility, supposedly intended for commercial purposes, would significantly increase its existing weapons production potential, separating the equivalent of 1,000 crude bombs’ worth of plutonium annually. A Japanese decision to end its plutonium program would give China less reason to proceed.

That’s the good news for those concerned with nuclear proliferation. But here’s the bad news: As the Fukushima accident has reduced Japan’s domestic nuclear demand, it also has increased the pressures on Japanese nuclear firms to export nuclear technology.

The same perverse logic applies in Europe and the United States. Reduced worldwide demand for nuclear plants is pushing nuclear firms into riskier nuclear markets in the Middle East and Asia, with potentially drastic security consequences. As past experience with India, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Syria demonstrates, such projects are also bomb starter kits. If the expansion of nuclear power is to avoid a future proliferation nightmare, the international community needs to tighten export rules now.

In the past, this would have been done through the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a cartel of nuclear supplier states that regulates nuclear exports. But this group now includes China and Russia, countries reluctant to impose strict rules.

What else could help prevent countries from acquiring the material to make nuclear bombs through commercial channels?

A Japanese decision to resist temptation and adopt stricter export rules would be a good start. U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both promoted a tough set of nonproliferation conditions for nuclear cooperation with states that do not possess nuclear weapons. Known as the "Gold Standard," it requires prospective nuclear customers to forswear making nuclear fuel and to accept a strict set of international nuclear inspection procedures. Washington applied this standard in the nuclear cooperation agreement that it signed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2009.

Japan would do well to adopt such conditions on its nuclear exports. Tokyo just reached a reactor construction deal with Lithuania. It should ask Vilnius to voluntarily uphold the nonproliferation conditions of the UAE deal.

Second, the United States needs to back these standards itself. When the Obama administration promoted the UAE standard, it claimed the deal would serve as a model agreement, but things are less clear now. The administration is trying to strike nuclear cooperation deals with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam, which, Foggy Bottom has warned, may not uphold the Gold Standard conditions.

Third, the United States and Japan should encourage others to tighten their rules on nuclear exports. Certainly, if the United States and Japan formally pushed the Gold Standard, it would have a powerful effect on France, Germany, and South Korea.

Paris has so far resisted adopting the Gold Standard, but has financial reasons to be receptive to U.S. suggestions that it reconsider. France does billions of dollars of federally guaranteed nuclear construction business in the United States, including a $2.7 billion contract with the U.S. Energy Department. Germany, meanwhile, has shifted into the non-nuclear camp domestically and is debating whether it should promote any nuclear exports. South Korea, which wants to be a responsible nuclear exporter, would likely also fall into line.

That leaves Russia, which might resist tighter export standards. But Moscow needs Western nuclear safety technology to bring its own nuclear reactors up to world standards, which provides some leverage. China, which is not likely to become a major nuclear exporter for a decade, is the wild card — but it might go along with tighter standards in time, as it has reluctantly in the past.

There is no question that efforts to tighten export controls are an uphill climb. This spring, the House Foreign Affairs Committee under Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) unanimously approved bipartisan draft legislation that would encourage the State Department to apply the Gold Standard to all future U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements and make the recycling of spent fuel from U.S.-exported reactors more difficult.

However, it’s not only American and U.S.-based French nuclear firms that are lobbying hard against this legislation — so is the Obama administration. Despite all the high-minded rhetoric about the importance of nonproliferation, it appears the White House attaches higher priority to nuclear sales in developing countries. Just last week, word leaked out that the administration is renewing talks to conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia — even though Riyadh’s royals recently declared that Saudi Arabia was committed to acquiring nuclear weapons if Iran did.

As usual, critics of stricter export rules argue that if restrictions are tightened, countries will turn to suppliers that apply even laxer security rules. This is the same tired argument that was made 30 years ago when Congress proposed tightening conditions on U.S. civilian nuclear exports in reaction to India’s diversion of U.S. and Canadian nuclear power assistance to make its first bomb. Those efforts resulted in the tighter nuclear export rules contained in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 — the very same rules that the Nuclear Suppliers Group later imposed internationally on all nuclear supplier states.

That was then. Now, after Fukushima, we have a new opportunity to lead. We should take it.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and the author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future. He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense from 1989 to 1993. Twitter: @NuclearPolicy

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