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Japan's plutonium stockpile alarming

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Andrew Monahan

A prominent Japanese politician remarked last week that Japan could easily make thousands of nuclear weapons, drawing on the vast plutonium reserves from its civil nuclear power program.

Liberal Party President Ichiro Ozawa made the remarks in a speech delivered in Fukuoka, and said that he had made similar comments to the visiting deputy chief of staff of the Liberation Army of China.

"If China gets too conceited, the Japanese will get hysterical," the provocatively-inclined Ozawa said. It could encourage conservatives more aggressively nationalistic than himself to pursue a nuclear weapons program to counter the Chinese threat.

He later insisted that he had merely intended to warn against excessive Chinese military buildup, and that he himself would view a nuclear arms race between the two Asian powers as "a tragedy for both countries."

Ozawa is a politician who captured the public imagination in the early 1990s, both in Japan and abroad, with his book "Blueprint for a New Japan," that rightly advocated an array of forward looking political and economic policies that a decade and a faltering reformist poster-boy prime minister later, Japan still badly needs to implement.

The incident, however, typifies a self-defeating tendency of some Japanese leaders, who speak menacingly about the consequences of perceived future threats, while leaving the historical fact of past unprovoked Japanese aggression largely silent. Such antics illustrate the surest way to fail in achieving a Japan divested of its former hindrances.

The Chinese People's Daily ran an unusually measured, strong criticism of Ozawa's bluster, dismissing the politician as out of touch with the anti-nuclear sentiment of his own country, a sentiment that translated into electoral-power makes points concerning weapons capability moot. China and Japan's other Asian neighbors, furthermore, could be counted on, diplomatically, to nip a weapons program in the bud.

The merest hint of any possible revival of Japanese militarism plays very poorly from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur, among all the countries Japan depends on for a wealth of trade and human capital. These countries still smolder with indignation over past Japanese aggressions and the continuing Japanese refusal to thoroughly acknowledge those crimes.

Tellingly, the People's Daily article on Ozawa ran beside another article detailing a recent contribution of forty-one photos to the Memorial Hall of the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre, otherwise known as the Rape of Nanjing, and startlingly not known at all among some segments of the Japanese youth, kept ignorant by leaders who turn history textbooks into exercises in revisionism.

The newly donated photos, like the exhibit on the Nanjing Massacre that opened last December at San Francisco's St Mary's Cathedral and then toured other U.S. cities, document exactly what politicians like Ozawa should want the young Japanese to acknowledge and vow clearly never to repeat.

Blueprints bypassing any trace of this past cannot lead to a new Japan, or at least not to the strong and internationally involved Japan that Ozawa, myself, and many others would like.

For the moment, though, we had better not wait for the old guard of the Japanese political elite to have a change of heart. Their shortcomings will likely pass when they themselves pass from power.

Ozawa's comments, however, highlight a more pressing problem: Japan's huge plutonium stockpile. If the political life of the revisionist right in Japan seems long, consider the 24,000-year half-life of plutonium.

Japan's first encounter with this extremely toxic element came in the horrific bombing of Nagasaki on Aug 9, 1945. Unlike the uranium bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima three days earlier, the Nagasaki bomb was made with plutonium. The 6.2 kilograms used in that bomb, however, pale in comparison to the 30,000-plus kilograms that Japan has accumulated through its plutonium-based civil power production program.

This plutonium could, as Ozawa noted, be used for nuclear weapons. It poses a huge threat to nuclear proliferation, as only a small quantity is necessary to produce a bomb. It is an easy target for terrorist groups, who covet it, stolen or purchased on the black market.

Certainly bureaucratic inertia, more than any sinister or secretive design, keeps the uneconomical and dangerous plutonium program alive, if but barely. Nonetheless, it compromises Japan's status as a key nation in the nonproliferation regime at a crucial moment.

Ozawa and others rightly recognize a Chinese nuclear buildup as undesirable, but the problem demands more than knee-jerk reactionism. Suspicions over the plutonium program already run high, and politicians here are mistaken to think that wielding such suspicions as a deterrent will work.

A better approach is suggested by the former director of the Nuclear Energy Division of the Foreign Ministry, Kumao Kaneko, who has been a leading spokesperson for the move to create a EURATOM equivalent in Asia.

This ASIATOM would likewise function to allay anxieties in the region over the proliferation concerns of the member nations' nuclear materials and facilities involved in civic programs, including of course Japan's. It would aim to include operable inspection and verification machinery to pave the way for the confidence necessary to establish a nuclear-free zone in the area.

Constructive Japanese moves in this direction, coupled with thorough apologies for its destructive past, would assuage Asian anxiety, and substantially elevate Japan's diplomatic voice.

Such a voice, if only leaders braver than Ozawa can assume it, will have the strength to challenge the silence, and offer instead the good sense to support an international system that seeks to prevent another Nanjing or Hiroshima from occurring.

The writer is a Fulbright Fellow at the Institute for Peace Science in Hiroshima.

April 17, 2002

Japan Today Discussion

Forget Japanese nukes. Worry about mine!
Anduril Click here to see all messages by Anduril (Apr 18 2002 - 02:36)

Japan's stock of plutonium isn't alarming. MY stock of plutonium is alarming!

Flame of the don't make me take all you bastages with me West

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