Jeffrey LewisJapan’s Pu and the Cookie Problem

Regular readers know I love public policy, especially perverse effects.  One of my favorite perverse effects is what I call “the cookie” problem after the plight of a beleaguered friend.  Let’s say you’ve come thisclose to cheating on a spouse or partner — but you don’t. Then you tell your spouse or partner about your heroic restraint. You’re going to catch hell, not get credit.  As I said to my friend, “What?  Did you expect a cookie?”

Drawing attention to something unwelcome often overwhelms any credit you get for taking steps to address that problem.  Even if other people are objectively better off, you will only suffer for bringing it up.

Tokyo discovered this phenomenon, when it announced it was returning more than 300 kilograms of plutonium and other fissile material.

Participants at a Nuclear Security Summit are supposed to show up with house-gifts. In 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came with a good one: “President Obama and Prime Minister Abe pledged to remove and dispose all highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium from the Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) in Japan.”  (Announcement|Fact Sheet)

Matt Bunn has a characteristically perfect explanation of the material at the Fast Critical Assembly and why it represented a security threat. IPFM has some nice background, including a DOE document on the FCA.

The United States had apparently sought the return of the material for some time, but MEXT (the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) was reluctant.  State Department cables released by Wikileaks suggest the United States was worried about security at the Toka-mura.  In 2007, the US asked about security and got this not very reassuring answer: “Responding to U.S. concerns about physical protection of nuclear facilities, MEXT explained that an assessment of the local threat level did not justify posting armed guards at the Tokai-Mura facility, and that the GOJ is constitutionally prevented from requiring background checks of nuclear workers, due to privacy considerations.”  So, I am glad that MEXT is coughing up the plutonium.

But that doesn’t mean that Japan’s neighbors were delighted.  No one is sending Shinzo Abe any cookies.

Most of Japan’s neighbors had never thought for a moment about the material at the FCA.  In a decade of traveling to Beijing, I never once heard anyone demand that Japan return the material at the FCA.  The facility wasn’t secret — it has a website — and Japan annually publishes its plutonium stockpile.  But no one cared — until Japan agreed to give it back.

News of the impending return started to leak in February, with a story in Kyodo News. When I visited Beijing for an IISS meeting on China’s nuclear weapons and energy policies, all I heard about was that damned plutonium.  Why is it still there?  People told me straight to my face that they’d been concerned about it for years.  Maybe I just missed it, but I don’t have a single record of anyone in China complaining about the Fast Critical Assembly before now.  But they were complaining now. A cynical person might conclude that some of my Chinese colleagues were attempting to make up for nearly fifty years of ignoring the issue by issuing all their complaints in one meeting.  (Mark Fitzpatrick has written an excellent summary of the tone of these exchanges. Go ahead and click over to it — this post will still be here when you get back.)

This is a very human tendency — something I saw recently in Japan, as well.  During the early 2000s, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi attempted to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens who had been abducted by North Korea. North Korea ultimately admitted to the abductions, providing information on their fates.  The Japanese public exploded in rage.  “The Japanese people were driven much more by sorrow and anger over the deaths of the abductees than by happiness that some abductees were still alive,” Yoichi Funabashi wrote, explaining how public sentiment turned against North Korea once it admitted what everyone suspected.

A similar question may arise relating to Israel’s nuclear weapons program.  My colleague, Avner Cohen, has argued eloquently that refusing to acknowledge Israel’s status as a possessor of nuclear weapons is incompatible with Israeli democracy.  But I have this sneaking suspicion that were Israel to acknowledge having nuclear weapons, even while accepting disarmament obligations, Israel’s neighbors would be more, not less, angry.

Of course, Japan should have returned the plutonium — just as North Korea should make amends for the abductees and Israel should find a way to subject its nuclear weapons to democratic control.  Tokyo, Pyongyang and Jerusalem should do these things because they are the right thing to do.

But don’t expect a cookie.


  1. Rob Goldston (History)

    Another example of the adage, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

  2. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    Great piece!
    Very subtle psychology.
    But what would be the appropriate analogy to “cheating”?
    Building the bomb? That would imply that you suspect Japan had, at some point, the intention of building one.

    I have another question in this context:

    Is not admitting to something equal to lying?

    Even if it is the right thing to return the fissile materials what about countries that in some way have/had a good reason to possess the bomb?
    I especially have Israel in mind. It is more than likely that the bomb saved the still young state during the Yom Kippur war and also avoided being bombed with nerve-gas during the 1st Iraq war.
    So I agree that it be a sensible conduct for Israel admitting to possess the device.

    • Carey Sublette (History)

      It is a good column.

      But a quibble with this:
      “It is more than likely that the bomb saved the still young state during the Yom Kippur war and also avoided being bombed with nerve-gas during the 1st Iraq war.”

      No, the bomb did not save the (not-quite-so-young) state during the Yom Kippur War, a straight-up conventional defeat of the aggressors did.

      There is no scenario under which Syria and Egypt could have jeopardized the Israeli state in that war — not even they thought this was a possibility, however remote.

      Regarding Iraq- they had no deliverable Scud nerve gas warheads.

    • tobias piechowiak (History)

      Not sure about Yom Kippur but IAF had a fighter ready with a nuclear warhead. So it might have been a subtle thread but they would have used it. In the beginning of the war it was far from clear that conventional defense would be enough. There is a good description of this situation in
      “The bomb in the basement” by Michael Karpin.

      Regarding Iraq don’t find it very convincing to say they did not have any means of fitting the Scuds with nerve gas.
      They had possession of all kinds of chemical weapons and used them in ruthless ways before (e.g. Halabdscha). They would have found a way to deliver it.

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      I believe that Karpin argues that Egypt and Syria limited their war aims to recovering the Sinai and the Golan heights, just because they thought that Israel had nuclear weapons. If this is so, Israel’s ambiguity did what it needed to do.

      By the way, with respect to Japan, I like the analogy of giving up only one of many mistresses. This has to be the first step towards a plan to draw down the overall supply of plutonium. In this area I like the idea put forward by Tatsujiro Suzuki that Rokkasho only should make Pu when it has a customer for it. In particular, Japan should draw down its existing stock before making more.

    • tobias piechowiak (History)

      Btw your site

      is really great! Very detailed and informative.


  3. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    So I agree that it be a sensible conduct for Israel NOT admitting to possess the device.

    Short correction 😉

  4. Jonah Speaks (History)

    This seems to be a species of doing what is right is not always rewarded. Should a criminal go to the police, confess his crimes, and go to jail? Should a manufacturer who discovers a product defect make a public announcement, recall the product, and accept law suits?

    Japan giving up a small portion of its plutonium stock is like a man with many mistresses agreeing to give up just one. Allies will provide friendly encouragement to give up more. Chinese propagandists stirring up nationalism simply look for any chance to vilify Japan.

    The latest news on North Korean kidnappings of Japanese citizens is that North Korea still refuses to rectify what it has done. With different actions to make amends, North Korea could have overcome this issue years ago.

    Israel not admitting it has nukes, even though everyone knows they have them, is a strange one. For the sake of democratic politics within Israel and for the sake of international negotiations, Israel should admit to what everyone already knows. Logic says they are in no worse position than India, Pakistan, or North Korea, all of whom are non-NPT members with nukes.

  5. Cyrus (History)

    Lets compare, shall we?

    BTW will there be any mention of Gareth Porter’s book on this blog?

  6. Magoo (History)

    Interesting to read – but raises two questions in my mind. 1. Why are we quibbling on the return of a few hundred pounds of plutonium when Japan has accumulated a few thousand Kgs of the stuff through indigenous sources?
    2. Would the European powers have dared to strike Libya if Gaddafi had not surrendered his nuclear programme and materials?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The quality of the plutonium in the FCA was far more suitable for weapons production than the reactor grade stuff available in larger amounts.

  7. olli heinonen (History)

    I find the assessments above a bit thin, but they likely sell well. In Japan an aged nun does not get – unguarded – very easily close to nuclear material. Same with a Shinto monk.The security system is very different from that one, which I am used to in Europe. When I did live in Tokyo, one of the first visitors to my home was a policeman from the next police box, who came to learn people newly moving in. Does the policeman in Brookline or Watertown in MA know,who lives there? I learned to know quite a few police and military guys living in Katsuta or Tokai during those years I spent there. They know what they are doing, and how to do it, but they do it differently.The only thing left to really worry are the intentions of the government, which does not differ from our concerns on any other country in the world. How to measure the intentions? When you got a country able to produce fissile material of any kind, what is the point? Shipping out that material is good, but actually only of a marginal benefit. Entirely different arrangements are needed to reduce the real risks of nuclear proliferation. This is where the wonks should come with ideas.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      I have had eyes on a theoretically well-armed-guarded quantity of HEU sufficient for an efficient implosion weapon before, without anyone interfering (not at the Japan facility, and some decades ago at a now completely disassembled facility). It would have been some effort to steal it, but getting in the room was not that difficult.

      Japan is security conscious, and differently security conscious, in ways that westerners don’t always fully understand. But they also don’t have perfect facility security for their nuclear, space, or other key programs.

      I am VERY RELIEVED by this material being moved.

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      It is hard to come up with ideas about how to verify governmental intentions, since intentions are diffused throughout a country’s power structure, which changes over time. Thus I am inclined to favor developing norms requiring countries to step back from the line as far as possible, such as Suzuki’s ideas about Rokkasho I noted above, and safeguards that will quickly reveal any motion towards the line. For example, why not tamper-evident real-time enrichment-level monitors at all enrichment plants in all NPT states? When we get past the last step in the JPA with Iran, let’s treat everyone the same – very strictly.

  8. Arch Roberts (History)

    I agree largely with Olli. I was in the middle of it when the U.S.-Japan agreement went through Congress. Lots of people disagreed with me at the time, and the thing barely went through. But the agreement codified an important principle, one that turns Robert Browning upside down and backwards: your grasp should never exceed your reach, when it comes to peaceful nuclear development. This is what Einhorn ( is talking about when he talks about limiting Iran’s enrichment to what is “practical” for its nuclear development program. A logical correlation of capabilities with requirements is a central part of negotiations with Iran.

    Japan agreed to provide transparency to the U.S. about its nuclear program in exchange for U.S. advance consent to the use of plutonium and enriched uranium of U.S. origin (which is most of what Japan has). I am sure that there were hiccups in the execution, but most people involved in the process will tell you the agreement has achieved what it sought. The confluence of agreement conditions, confidential U.S. and IAEA access to Japan’s facilities, and public reporting successfully assured neighbors that Japan was behaving the way it said it would.

    The U.S. government certainly knew about this stockpile, as did the IAEA. Everyone with a concern knew this material existed, and that it was a potential nuclear security threat. You can’t have a program as ambitious as Japan’s one was without producing material sutable for bombs. Now that Japan’s nuclear program is a shambles, they can certainly send this stuff out of the country since it has no prospective use in their program. They probably have a whole bunch of other stuff they don’t need, lots of which is outside the country in France, Great Britain, and the U.S., for which I assume they pay very dearly.

  9. olli heinonen (History)

    What is “practical” and “justifiable” in terms of enrichment and stocks of fissile material will be topic for lively discussion during months to come. When I started my safeguards inspections in Tokai, Oarai and Osaka, those critical assemblies with HEU and Pu were in active scientific and R&D use. Now that the Japanese fast breeder and ATR programs start to be history only, there is no real use for those materials, and we should hail the decision to turn them back.

    It might also be worth of noting that Japan has not been enriching uranium higher levels than what is required for the light water reactors. There is a fleet of research reactors in Japan, which use fuel around 20 % (and earlier even higher). Such enrichments were used also as a driver fuel for the breeders. In spite of their own enrichment capabilities, Japan found it “practical” to import such fuel. Megatons to megawatts programs has come to its end, but there is still huge amount of excess HEU in the stocks of nuclear weapons states. A typical research reactor has perhaps 30 kg 20 % enriched uranium in its core. From existing hundreds tons of HEU, one can cut a piece for all research reactors of the world for decades. In other words, there is no practical needs or rational to enrich uranium to 20 % level for research or medical isotope production.

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