Norihiro Kato of Waseda University in Tokyo has a recent opinion piece in the NY Times, entitled Ambiguities of Japan’s Nuclear Policy. The OpEd argues that Japan has maintained a “technological deterrent” by having the breakout capacity to achieve a nuclear weapon quickly if so provoked. This is achieved by maintain the material to create a device and the technical know-how that comes from the nuclear industry to fashion a device if necessary. He argues that this is coming to end though:
But now the two props of Japan’s not-so-secret strategy of technological deterrence are falling apart. The Abe cabinet has adopted a confrontational stance toward Japan’s East Asian neighbors. It has weakened the country’s previous commitment to not exporting arms to certain types of countries, including those subject to arms embargoes or involved in international conflicts. Other countries, sensing that the Abe administration may want to jettison the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, have begun expressing concern over Japan’s stores of plutonium.
At the same time, the government is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why Japan should maintain its fuel-cycle policy. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, none of Japan’s 48 commercial nuclear reactors is currently in operation, and popular opinion is mounting against the idea of developing more special fast-breeder reactors.
The lack of support by the populace, Prime Minister Abe’s confrontation stance, and waning US support of Japan as a result, Kato argues are signals that Japan’s “technological deterrent” is over. The recent return of HEU and plutonium stores to the US by Japan is seen as evidence that Japan’s “deterrent” is waning.
I have to disagree with several of the conclusions in this article. First, the lack of discussion of US troops stationed in Japan or the 2009 Pivot to Asia as evidence of continued US support in the region is odd. Understandably, the US commitment to the protection of Japan in the event of conflict of the Senkaku Islands is a valid concern; however, with troops present, US naval activity in the region continuing, and the acquiescence of US to redeploy Marines to Guam at the request of Japan, tends to indicate a credible commitment to Japan and the region.
The article also makes no mention of the continued nuclear umbrella provided by the US to Japan. The failure to mention this point at is troubling. Japan is able to maintain its ‘unique’ deterrent as argued by the author because it hasn’t in the past rocked the boat. This is a weak argument. Japan has been able to pursue nuclear technology in a more lenient manner than other NPT signatories because of the US commitment to the country. In the event of conflict that would have necessitated the construction of weapons by Japan, their construction in time to respond would not have been adequate and the US umbrella would be relied upon. This remains constant.
One final point on the return of materials to the US should be made. The materials returned are of US origin, used in Japanese facilities, and no longer needed. Their return to the US has more to do with more of US meeting its programmatic goals of consolidating its material that was distributed in early stages of Atoms for Peace than decreased confidence in the Japanese regime. Evidence in this is that the US has not requested the Rokkasho reprocessing plant shuttered (which it can via its 123 Agreement and the presence of US technology at the site) or that Japan relinquish materials produced at the facility. The portion of material reclaimed by the US in comparison to the amount of material that has been and can be produced at Rokkasho is very small. Further, return of these materials could signal a strengthen of the “technological deterrent”, as Japan is no longer constrained by the US regulation on the use of its HEU and plutonium, making construction of weapon easier as there would be no question of the origin of the materials.
While there are many concerns within Japan on issues including the word ‘nuclear’, the one describe in the NY Times OpEd is minimal.