Legal revision agitates Japan in nuclear-weapons debate

August 17, 2012


Has Japan opened the door--slightly--to developing nuclear weapons? The nation has amended its nuclear manifesto to cite "national security" as a reason for possessing the technology.

Critics say the change to the nation's Atomic Energy Basic Law will loosen constraints on weapons development, breaking an existing rule that nuclear technology be used for peaceful ends.

Nuclear weapons were used twice against Japan in World War II, leaving a legacy of national trauma and widespread public opposition to atomic arms.

"It means military use is now possible to defend national security," said Michiji Konuma, professor of physics, emeritus, at Keio University. "It contradicts the peaceful-use provision."

But one author of the change says the criticism is exaggerated.

"The word 'security' combines the concepts of nuclear energy with nuclear safeguards," said Masahiko Shibayama, a Diet member who served in the revision team. "We included that word because it reflects an integrated approach."

He said in 21 meetings the drafting team never singled out the disputed word for special attention.

That team, comprising 17 experts from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, was tasked with drafting a bill to establish a new nuclear regulatory commission to replace the existing Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. The change came in response to the Fukushima disaster last year and subsequent criticism that nuclear oversight was overly fragmented. Related duties such as reactor safety checks and fuel security were handled by separate government agencies.

Shibayama says the team considered creating a new body modeled on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which alone oversees the U.S. nuclear sector. Later, the group proposed amending the Atomic Energy Basic Law to cite "security" as an aim.

"Contributing to Japan's security means preventing diversion to military use," said Shibayama.

But controlling fissile material is nuclear security. The new code says "national security," a wholly different concept which usually means national defense.

The LDP submitted the bills package to the Diet jointly with New Komeito, a smaller opposition party. The government and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, eager to establish a new regulatory body, accepted the bills almost without change. They were submitted to the Diet again, this time with the backing of all three parties.

The Upper House Environment Committee picked up the word "security," but the draft was approved regardless on June 20. A supplementary resolution declared the new law would not overturn Japan's three non-nuclear principles: not possessing, not producing, and not permitting the entry to Japan of nuclear weapons. The legislation was deliberated on for only three days.

Konuma, the nuclear specialist, said the new text blurs the basic philosophy of the Atomic Energy Basic Law. Until now, he says, it restricted nuclear technology to peaceful purposes, and played a major role in blocking Japan from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. It fills a hole in Japan’s constitution, which permits self-defense with weapons that remain unspecified.

"It is now legally possible to manufacture nuclear weapons when needed," says Hidekatsu Yoshii, a Communist Party lawmaker. "Until now there was no legal basis for that."

Meanwhile, other critics of the change say the word 'security' might be used to let nuclear power and Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle program outlive their current adversities.

The nuclear fuel cycle consists of reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium and create new fuel. Plutonium can be diverted to nuclear weapons.

A reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, has suffered a string of failures and after two decades of construction is still off-line. Japan's Atomic Energy Commission has gone so far as to suggest that burying spent fuel securely may be cheaper than reprocessing it.

Japan faces strong international pressure to reduce its plutonium stockpile. Some of it has been reprocessed in Britain and France, but in total Japan has more than 40 tons of plutonium.

Excess plutonium and rocket technology allow a nation to develop a nuclear arsenal. South Korean mass media has been quick to declare that Japan is on the verge of nuclear armament.

The current U.S.-South Korea civil nuclear cooperation agreement expires in 2014. Seoul is urging Washington to grant it the right, in a new agreement, to reprocess spent fuel and to enrich uranium.

It might try to go a step further. Nuclear advocates there are using Japan's law reform to argue for South Korean nuclear sovereignty.

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Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.'s reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.'s reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.'s reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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