Mark HibbsChina, Amano, and Japan’s Plutonium

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano on March 3 had this to say about recently-voiced Chinese concerns about Japan’s plutonium inventory:

We have drawn (the) conclusion that all nuclear materials in Japan stay in peaceful purposes… Therefore, I do not have (a) reason to have concern that this (material) … will be diverted.

At issue are 331 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium long associated with the Fast Critical Assembly operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency at Tokai.

Friends in the IAEA boardroom this week expressed the view that Amano’s confidence seemed informed by the IAEA having for years reached a safeguards “broader conclusion” for Japan — as Amano himself explained that concept to a general audience in 2012: “If [a country] implements the Additional Protocol, we can provide assurance that all the activities in that country [are for] peaceful purposes.” The IAEA has annually renewed its broader conclusion for Japan since it was first given in 2004.

The broader conclusion is about IAEA safeguards, not nuclear security, and Amano in his reported remarks did not refer to the nuclear security dimension of the Tokai plutonium. But he must know that security issues–not Japan’s nonproliferation credentials–have been at the heart of five years of  bilateral U.S.-Japan discussions about this plutonium inventory.

Japan has agreed to remove the Tokai weapons-grade plutonium to the U.S. as part of its voluntary offer to the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands later this month. This will be announced then, was more or less spelled out by Japanese media in January, but it wasn’t refered to by Amano in his answer to reporters’ questions in Vienna this week.

In addition to the Tokai weapons-grade plutonium inventory, Japan’s nuclear R&D facilities also host considerable inventories of weapons-grade uranium–perhaps 1,400 kilograms, with about 500 kg hosted by a single critical assembly installation. Given Japan’s evolving policy on its weapons-grade plutonium inventories, we might anticipate that in the future at least a portion of Japan’s uranium inventory may likewise be removed to the U.S.

Fukushima may have informed this decision making. While some media reports on U.S.-Japan interaction left open whether Japanese “balking” at repatriating the plutonium meant that Tokyo was hedging for strategic reasons, in fact Japan had argued that weapons-grade materials were needed for JAEA’s fast reactor research on sound scientific grounds. Since 2011, however, Japan’s advanced reactor vision has receded into the distance.

Before he became the Director General of the IAEA, Amano was ambassador in Japan’s Permanent Mission in Vienna, and in that capacity he offered these remarks in 2006 concerning Japan’s management of its HEU inventories:

[Japan] has used highly enriched uranium at research reactors in the past, but since the end of 1970s, it has reduced the uranium enriched level from HEU to LEU. By now, Japan has almost completed the conversion. A remaining issue is that of the transportation of highly enriched spent fuel to the United States. A considerable amount of this fuel has already been transported, with the remainder due for transportation at a later date. Reducing the use of highly enriched uranium fuel is an important issue in preventing nuclear terrorism. I hope the process of replacing it with low enriched uranium fuel will be accelerated worldwide

Why did China raise the issue of Japan’s plutonium beginning last month? (Beijing quasi-official media after Amano’s statement this week reiterated its concerns). The most readily available explanation is that a Japan bristling with weapons-grade nuclear materials fits a Chinese narrative that the Abe government intends to re-militarize and threaten Japan’s neighbors. Is China concerned about Japan’s plans to reprocess its power reactor spent fuel at Rokkasho-mura? Perhaps, but China itself is planning on embarking on commercial-scale reprocessing of its own growing spent fuel inventory.

Recent media interventions over this issue in fact look more like an us-versus-them standoff in the East China Sea and less like a discussion of Japan’s nuclear materials security. China ran the Japan plutonium issue up the flagpole in Beijing in mid-February. That was three weeks after Japanese media had already reported that Japan had agreed to U.S. wishes to give up the plutonium at Tokai. When Amano this week brushed aside Chinese concerns about the plutonium, the U.S. ambassador in Vienna in a statement reinforced Amano’s message that weapons-grade materials in Japan were of “no concern.”

That’s not the view of U.S. officials who have been discussing this issue with Japan since 2009. On less public occasions, they have pointed out that with respect to Japan’s comparative openness–the weapons-grade materials are clearly civilian and located in facilities where international research is ongoing–there is a residual security risk associated with them. The U.S. view is that removing weapons-grade nuclear materials from Japan to the U.S. would enhance their security. Japan now appears to clearly share that perspective.


  1. yousaf (History)

    I think there is nothing wrong safeguards-wise in Japan.

    The Additional Protocol is helpful but not an iron-clad guarantee of anything.

    Statements from Japanese officials/intellectuals do not inspire confidence:


    One argument in favor rarely gets a public airing: Japan needs to maintain its technical ability to make nuclear bombs.

    “I don’t think Japan needs to possess nuclear weapons, but it’s important to maintain our commercial reactors because it would allow us to produce a nuclear warhead in a short amount of time,” Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister, said in an interview in a recent edition of Sapio, a right-leaning twice-monthly magazine.

    “It’s a tacit nuclear deterrent,” added Mr. Ishiba, an influential parliament member who made similar remarks on a prime time television news show in August while serving as policy chief of Japan’s main opposition party.

    Instead of sparking an outcry, his remarks seem to have stimulated further consideration of their merits. The Yomiuri newspaper, Japan’s largest-circulation daily, urged the government to stay the course on nuclear power in an editorial last month, stressing that the country’s stockpile of plutonium gives it diplomatic leverage.”As Japan has worked to strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime through the peaceful use of nuclear power, the nation is permitted to use plutonium that can be used as material for nuclear weapons. In fact, this also functions diplomatically as a potential nuclear deterrent.” the paper said.


    • shaheen (History)

      Yousaf’s alleged strict legalism when approaching another nuclear question (say, Iran) contrasts with the gist of his comment here. So, now we should not stick with what the IAEA says or does not say, but refer to op-eds and statements from former officials and parliamentarians? Tss, tss…

    • yousaf (History)

      Not at all: I made a clear statement that Japan seems OK CSA-wise. Same for Iran, in my view.

      I don’t recall suggesting above that we sanction Japan — or is that somehow the “gist” you wrongly understood?

      There are “concerns” with both Japan and Iran.

      And Brazil, and Argentina, and…

      For none of these do these “concerns” amount to a legal issue.

      But only for one of these nations are there legally-dubious UN and unilateral sanctions imposed based on things resolved in 2008. In fact, the EU courts have already struck down some of these sanctions precisely because they were legally unjustifiable.

      Now if the Chinese Intelligence Agency (not to be confused with the other CIA) were to discover some hard-to-authenticate indications of Japan having “possibly” researched nuclear weapons 10 years ago on some laptop someone somewhere got, I would encourage the IAEA not to pay much attention to that.

      How is that for being equitable in my proposed treatment of Iran and Japan?

      Also note: S. Korea and Egypt had similar CSA violations but were never counted as such presumably because they are US allies and the six-party talks were ongoing at the time so it would have (according to Pierre Goldschmidt) “politically embarrassing” at the time. For the reference to Pierre’s statement see:

      So it is in fact the IAEA which is politically biased here.

      Tss Tss.

    • mark (History)


      I find your logic bizarre.

      You suggest in response to shaheen that you don’t discriminate between Japan and Iran, and that if there were Chinese intelligence information asserting that Japan were engaged in nefarious activities then the IAEA should ignore it.

      Then why do you rely in in your previous email upon the opinions of unqualified non-officials, right-wing oppositionists, and newspaper leader writers to insinuate that Japan’s nonproliferation bonafides are questionable (“do not inspire confidence”)?

      Do you consider the Japanese opinion and hearsay you cite above to be more inherently quotable or reliable than remarks from third parties suggesting that Iran’s nonproliferation credentials “do not inspire confidence”–remarks which, over the course of your many interventions on this blog site on the subject of Iran’s nuclear intentions and ambitions, you have not deemed worthy of merit, indeed, quite to the contrary?

      Let me remind you that Japan has never been cited by the IAEA for a violation of its safeguards agreement. In 2003 however the IAEA Secretariat (under Elbaradei, not Amano, lest we forget) told its Board of Governors that Iran systematically deceived the IAEA about the scope of its nuclear activities for 18 years. And to reiterate, those recurring failures to comply with safeguards by Iran involved nuclear materials and should have been declared to the IAEA under the terms of Iran’s CSA.

    • yousaf (History)

      There is a difference between a “concern” and a legally meaningful matter. Both in the case of Iran, and Japan.

      Iran’s legal CSA issues were resolved in 2008.

      And Japanese officials have explicitly advertised Japan’s nuclear weapons capability:

      ” Kumao Kaneko, a 76-year-old former director of the Nuclear Energy Division of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Center for Public Integrity that Tokyo pressed the Carter administration in 1977 for permission to start producing plutonium partly to ensure Japan had a weapons option.

      “We concluded, Japan should not [build] nuclear armaments, while leaving the ability” to do so, said Kaneko, who retired from the ministry in 1982 to become a director of a Foreign Ministry-affiliated think tank.

      That decision followed a formal, secret study of options for building nuclear arms, conducted in 1970 at the behest of Yasuhiro Nakasone, then Japan’s defense minister. After two years of work, the group concluded “it would be possible in a legal sense to possess small-yield, tactical, purely defensive nuclear weapons without violating the constitution.” But it decided that the effort would be costly, take years, and alienate Japan’s neighbors. The country decided instead to stay under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

      But many prominent Japanese officials still want the capability to produce nuclear arms if they were needed, according to Naoto Kan, who held a series of top government financial and strategic policy positions before becoming Japan’s prime minister from 2010 to 2011, representing the Democratic Party of Japan — the LDP’s main rival. He said the desire for a nuclear weapons capability is an important source of support for Japan’s plutonium programs.

      “Inside Japan, and that is not only within the Democratic Party of Japan, there are entities who wish to be able to maintain the ability to produce Japan’s own plutonium,” Kan said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity in his parliamentary office. “They do not say it in public, but they wish to have the capability to create nuclear weapons in case of a threat.”

      It’s a bold assertion, which independent figures — like Hiroaki Kodai, a 63-year old physicist at Kyoto University — say Japanese society usually does not tolerate. Kodai, who is an assistant professor, says his own similar declarations have “not been good for my career.”

      The U.S. has long been concerned about potential development of a Japanese bomb, since Japan has the scientific skills, infrastructure and — most important — the raw explosive material in the form of plutonium, hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade uranium, and the technology to produce more. “

    • mark (History)


      Nothing in your litany of citations points to any official decisions by Japanese leaders to set up a parallel nuclear program, engage in undeclared nuclear activities as Iran did for nearly two decades, or embark on the kind of military-led R&D that the IAEA is asking Iran to explain.

      I asked people who were at the table with Kaneko years ago. They told me they don’t believe things transpired as you relate. One had this to add: “The Japanese had just ratified the NPT, and any suggestion to the Carter administration that they wanted to produce plutonium for a nuclear weapons option would have blown the negotiations out of the water.”

      It is well known and in the public record that for decades the U.S. has had concerns that Japan might go off on a tangent were any of a number of things to happen. To my knowledge US policy on Japan’s peaceful nuclear program was largely informed by that concern and they monitored this very closely. Neither the US, nor any other state, has had that kind of leverage over Iran since the revolution. You can deduct what you want from that fact.

      What you write on Japan tracks very closely with Iran’s narrative about Japan in the IAEA boardroom over many years. Iran says: “The U.S., the West, Israel, and the IAEA are unfair and are beating up on us. Japan is a near-nuclear weapons state whose NW capabilities are protected by America. Iran however has only wanted peaceful nuclear energy.” Up to you if you want buy into this–or not.

      This is the last word on this subject. I’m closing the post on this and moving on.

  2. Strontium-90 (History)

    Yet another round of bungled public diplomacy. Mr. Amano left the appearance of consciously avoiding reference to nuclear security mere weeks before the next NSS convenes. Astonishing.

  3. Arch Roberts (History)

    As usual, read Fitzpatrick, and get a grip.

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