OSAKA – When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in New York next week, both men will size up each other and discuss the bilateral relationship and the challenges that lie ahead.
One challenge, whether it’s on the agenda or not, will be the future direction of Japan’s nuclear power program.
With a key 1988 bilateral agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear power due to expire in July 2018, Tokyo and Washington next year will have to begin addressing the question of what, exactly, Japan’s nuclear policy should be.
Renegotiating the treaty is also sure to raise questions about the possibility of Japan using nuclear materials for military purposes, especially as Trump made contradictory statements about the possibility of arming Japan with nuclear weapons.
In an April TV interview, he suggested that Japan might defend itself from North Korea’s nuclear weapons by way of a nuclear arsenal of its own. That comment came a few weeks after another television interview in which he said that it is time to reconsider America’s policy of not allowing Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons because it is going to happen anyway, and is only a question of time.
Trump later claimed that his opponents were misrepresenting his position. In the weeks before Tuesday’s election, he toned down his rhetoric on nuclear weapons use in general.
Japan’s reply to Trump was that it would continue to maintain its three non-nuclear principles of not manufacturing, possessing, or introducing nuclear weapons.
Now, with the agreement’s extension soon to become an issue in the bilateral relationship, experts are wondering how Trump, when he is president, will handle negotiations.
“I have absolutely no idea what position the Trump administration will adopt. It’s pretty clear their issues team hasn’t thought through things like this,” says James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The U.S. has a long-standing policy against the accumulation of plutonium, but Japan already has about 48 tons stockpiled domestically and in Europe, and how it will consume or disposed of it remains uncertain.
“Japan has plans to produce more plutonium in the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. Given how few MOX-burning reactors will be operating in the foreseeable future, there is a very serious risk of a large imbalance between plutonium supply and demand,” Acton said, using the acronym for mixed uranium-plutonium oxide fuel. “I suspect the U.S. will use the occasion of the agreement’s renewal to try and address this problem.”
The Rokkasho plant is in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture.
Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany, says Trump has created an unprecedented degree of uncertainty in Japan about nuclear cooperation in general.
“Regardless of what position the new U.S. administration takes with regard to renewing the 1988 agreement, it is Japan, with its 48 tons of separated plutonium and no peaceful use plans, together with the nations of East Asia, that need to take a leadership role in reducing the risks from nuclear power. That includes terminating Rokkasho,” Burnie said.
The 1988 agreement came about after concerns in the U.S. that Japan was pursuing a plutonium program that could lead to proliferation issues, and a desire by Japan to make it easier to obtain U.S. approval for nuclear material shipments to Japan from Europe, as required by a previous agreement. In turn, the U.S. got more say in the inspection and security requirements for nuclear facilities in Japan.
The agreement also clearly emphasized it was only for the peaceful uses of power.
Article 8 of the agreement specifically bans the transfer of nuclear material to Japan (or from Japan to the U.S.) for use in nuclear explosive devices, for research specifically on, or development of, nuclear devices, and for military purposes.
“The U.S. does not think that Japan is looking to possess nuclear weapons. But holding so much plutonium, like Japan does, sets a very bad example for other countries and creates great concerns in the U.S. about the problem of nuclear terrorism,” wrote Tetsuya Endo, former deputy chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission in a March article for the Tokyo-based Institute for Peace Policies.
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