Where is Japan's Missing Plutonium?

     Twenty-four years ago, in 1988, I was living in Japan for the first time and starting to learn a little about the frightening aspects of Japan’s nuclearization. Back then, a small booklet sarcastically entitled Genpatsu Arigato! (Thanks for the Nukes) [1] appeared, written by Yoshiko Obara, who was often described as having been “just a housewife” before she took up her cause. This book quickly became a powerful catalyst of the post-Chernobyl anti-nuclear movement in Japan. At that time, I read an English translation of it and shared it with some friends. It was horrifying enough to become one of my reasons to go back to Canada, but when years passed without a disaster happening, my good sense subsided and I returned to Japan in 1994.
Back in 1988, I remember talking about the book with friends, and one big question we had was why Japan had no declared nuclear weapons but was also unopposed by the global community in its desire to possess huge stocks of plutonium. Everyone knows the familiar line that Japan is the only country to have experienced an attack with atomic weapons, it has a peace constitution, and it would never allow nuclear weapons on its territory, and so on. But still, why the plutonium? We were cynical to enough to suggest that Japan might really have a secret nuclear weapons program, or had a program which would allow for the rapid development of nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, it was difficult to get anyone to take such a suggestion seriously. Japan had done an excellent job of establishing its image as a peaceful country dedicated to the elimination of nuclear weapons. This is certainly true of a large sector of Japanese society, but government policy and action have never reflected this goal.
It turns out our suspicions were not in the realm of deluded conspiracy theory. A recent study entitled United States Circumvented Laws To Help Japan Accumulate Tons of Plutonium was published on April 9 by the National Security News Service. [2] It describes how Japan’s allies and the IAEA have had little to say about the fact “that Japan has lost track of more than 70 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium at its accident plagued Tokai reprocessing plant–enough to make more than 20 nuclear weapons.” When un-favored nations handle enriched uranium or plutonium, they are called to account on every gram of it, and the media reports on transgressions relentlessly, but Japan just seems to have “misplaced” 70 kilograms and been allowed to accumulate a large stockpile.
The same dual standard goes for missile programs. The article describes how Japan was developing its nuclear industry and simultaneously investing heavily in rocket technology and satellite programs, and all rockets are dual use technology. This article by the PEC serves as a reminder that regardless of what we think about faults of particular governments, all nations have the right to develop defensive weapons and launch satellites into space. North Korea’s attempt at launching an “aggressive” missile into space.
An editorial of The Mainichi newspaper from June 23, 2012 (no longer online) reported that the Japanese Diet passed an important amendment to laws related to national security and nuclear policy, with little public awareness or controversy. The changes to the Atomic Energy Basic Law require that Japan’s nuclear energy “should contribute to national security.” According to the Mainichi editorial, “The Diet spent only four days deliberating the bill after it was submitted, and failed to thoroughly discuss whether Japan’s atomic energy policy should contribute to the country’s national security.”
The phrase, “contribute to Japan’s national security,” was also added to the Aerospace Basic Act of 2008. The use of this ambiguous phrase in the context of nuclear policy and missile and rocket technology is implicitly understood as a reference to maintaining nuclear weapons capability. These changes to existing laws conform with a policy of not necessarily possessing nuclear weapons, but certainly with one of maintaining the ability to construct and deploy a nuclear weapon on short notice if doing so were deemed necessary to “contribute to the country’s national security.”
The Associated Press still has an article online that discusses the 2012 amendment. The writer, Yuriko Kageyama, noted in the conclusion:

Backers of the amendment say it refers to protecting nuclear plants from terrorists. Opponents ask why the words aren’t then “nuclear security,” instead of “national security.”
Japan has 45 tons of separated plutonium, enough for several Nagasaki-type bombs. Its overall plutonium stockpile of more than 150 tons is one of the world’s largest, although much smaller than those of the U.S., Russia or Great Britain.
Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, an outspoken conservative, has repeatedly said Japan should flaunt the bomb option to gain diplomatic clout. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed similar sentiments, although in more subdued terms.
The Yomiuri, the nation’s largest newspaper, made a rare mention of the link between nuclear energy and the bomb in an editorial defending nuclear power last year, saying that Japan’s plutonium stockpile “works diplomatically as a nuclear deterrent.”
That kind of talk worries Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice chairman at the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, a government panel that shapes nuclear policy. Himself an opponent of proliferation, he said that having the bomb is a decades-old ambition for some politicians and bureaucrats.
“If people keep saying (nuclear energy) is for having nuclear weapons capability, that is not good,” Suzuki said. “It’s not wise. Technically it may be true, but it sends a very bad message to the international community.” [3]

All of this makes for valuable background reading now that Donald Trump has become president after suggesting that Japan and South Korea should pay more for their own self-defense and perhaps consider developing nuclear weapons of their own. As is common in this age, journalists, politicians and bureaucrats seem completely oblivious to the obligations that the United States, South Korea and Japan agreed to long ago by ratifying the Non-Proliferation Treaty. At least North Korea had the decency to withdraw from the NPT when it decided it no longer wanted to honor its obligations.


[1] Yoshiko Obara (小原 良子), Thanks for the Nukes (Genpatsu Arigato, 原発ありがとう), (Tokyo: Komichishoubou, 1988), ISBN 978-4-7705-4116-1. (My translation of title).

[2] Joseph Trento, “United States Circumvented Laws To Help Japan Accumulate Tons of Plutonium,” National Security News Service, April 9, 2012, https://dcbureau.org/201204097128/national-security-news-service/united-states-circumvented-laws-to-help-japan-accumulate-tons-of-plutonium.html .
See also this interview with this Joseph Trento: James Corbett, “The Secret US - Japan Nuclear Program–GRTV Feature Interview,” Global Research TV, May 8, 2012, https://youtu.be/hufcDj2wG4U .

[3]Yuri Kageyama, “Japan’s Pro-Bomb Voices Grow Louder Amid Nuke Debate,” Associated Press, July 31, 2012.

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