Japan-India civil nuclear pact

The Lower House approval of the civil nuclear cooperation pact between Japan and India this week makes it certain that the pact will now take effect, given the chamber’s superiority in endorsing international treaties. However, questions raised and problems pointed out over the pact — including the ambiguities over whether Japan can terminate the accord if India carries out another nuclear test — were left unaddressed as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition pushed it through the Diet. The first such pact Japan has concluded with a country outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime was designed to promote exports of the nation’s nuclear power plant technology, but the feasibility of Japanese firms’ overseas nuclear power business is increasingly in doubt.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group, a group of 48 countries including the United States, France, Russia, Britain, China and Japan, had long banned export of nuclear power plant technology to India because it was not a party to the NPT. India, which conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, is not a party to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, either. But the group changed its rules in 2008 and made it possible for member countries to export such technology to India. Japan started negotiations with India in 2010 and signed the civil nuclear cooperation pact last November.

During deliberations on the accord, the Abe administration stressed that the pact carries the most stringent conditions on transfers of civil nuclear technology among similar agreements that other countries signed with India. However, the pact does not specify conditions under which Japan can terminate the deal, whereas its similar pacts with Jordan and Vietnam include a provision that a nuclear test by those countries would constitute grounds for Tokyo to terminate the agreements. As the opposition Democratic Party has pointed out, the pact with India does not carry a provision to strictly limit the use of Japanese nuclear plant technology to nonmilitary applications.

The government maintains that a document accompanying the pact empowers Japan to terminate the pact if India carries out a nuclear test. The document says Japan can scrap the pact if a change occurs to India’s 2008 statement declaring a moratorium on nuclear bomb tests and confirmation of its policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. However, a clause inserted in the pact also says that Japan will consider whether the conditions that may lead to ending the pact have emerged as a result of India’s response to an action taken by a country whose behavior may affect India’s security and is of the same kind as an action India may take in response. This can be construed to leave room for Japan not to terminate the pact if India carries out a nuclear test in response to a nuclear test by its neighbor Pakistan.

It is also left unclear what Japan will do if India conducts a subcritical nuclear experiment, in which chemical high explosives are detonated next to samples of a weapons-grade radioactive material to obtain new data in the ensuing microseconds without formation of critical mass and hence, without a self-sustaining nuclear fission chain reaction. The U.S. has carried out such tests a number of times to maintain or upgrade the quality of its nuclear weapons and materials. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, when he was pressed on the question in the Diet, only said Japan will deal adequately with India if that happens, avoiding any commitment to ending the pact in response to such a test.

If indeed India contradicts its 2008 statement and Japan terminates the pact, a new problem would likely emerge. Japan has the right to demand that India send back nuclear equipment shipped from Japan under the pact as well as plutonium produced in India using them — but, according to the Foreign Ministry — at Japan’s cost. That could add to Japan’s own stockpile of plutonium, which has already reached 48 tons.

Behind the Japan-India nuclear pact was the Abe administration’s push for export of Japan’s nuclear power plant technology as a key source of business to drive the nation’s growth. However, Toshiba Corp., which was expected to play a key role in the overseas sales of nuclear plants, has been plunged into a financial crisis over the bankruptcy of Westinghouse, its nuclear power business unit in the U.S. that it acquired in 2006 just as it prepared for the nuclear business opportunities to open in such emerging markets as India.

The government has tried to promote the overseas sales of Japanese nuclear power plants as the prospect of their domestic sales was shattered by the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant. But tightened safety regulations following the Fukushima disaster have pushed up the cost of building nuclear power plants worldwide — a problem that forced Vietnam in November to cancel its nuclear power plans, for which Japan had successfully won the contracts to build two reactors. The nuclear power export scenario, to which the civil nuclear cooperation pact with India was supposed to contribute, has been thrown into question.