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.