Japan's Growing Nuclear Equivocation

December 10, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON. — ''Base, indeed, is the double-standard policy of the U.S. o the nuclear issue which is raising a hue and cry over the non-existent 'nuclear problem' of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea while feigning ignorance of Japan's move to become a nuclear power.''

London -- So reports the North Korean official press agency. Hyperbole aside, there is, sad to say, a kernel of truth in what Pyongyang says. Why are the Japanese building up huge stocks of bomb-grade plutonium? And -- this is the question of the month -- why are the British helping them?

Before Christmas the British government will decide whether to activate Britain's thermal-oxide reprocessing plant, Thorp. Its biggest customer would be Japan, which argues that it needs Thorp's plutonium to fuel a breeder reactor, a power plant that, once operational, can generate its own fuel.

There are reasonable grounds for thinking that Japan's interest reaches far beyond just importing plutonium for civilian purposes. A successful breeder reactor is at least 40 years away.

When Britain built Thorp in the mid-1970s, oil and uranium prices were going through the roof. The daring idea of a reprocessing plant that could produce its own eternal power supply was intoxicating. Today it looks more like inebriation. Uranium is so plentiful its price is one sixteenth of what it was in 1976. Plutonium is also abundant, not least because of all the nuclear weapons being dismantled. Most countries, including the U.S., have stopped work on both reprocessing plants and fast breeders.

Japan's anti-nuclear reflex, borne of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has long been held to be immune to change, short of genetic engineering. In fact the government had to cajole Japanese companies into the plutonium deal. Yet today, with the rise of the North Korean nuclear threat, Japanese policy makers talk openly about reserving the right to build a nuclear defense -- although, to be fair, it was probably Japan's pursuit of a plutonium economy that encouraged North Korea's bomb-making plans.

We can argue about the chicken and egg of all this, but meanwhile one of the great advantages of ending the Cold War '' is in jeopardy -- freeing the world from the threat of nuclear war. If Japan is beginning to equivocate about the possibility of a nuclear-weapons capability, then its powerful neighbors will react -- not just North Korea but South Korea, Taiwan and China. And whatever China does affects India and that in turn Pakistan. Not only is Britain a key link in that chain; its decision whether to go ahead with its reprocessing plant also will influence whether Russia shuts down its own unsafe plant.

There is also a very real terrorist threat. Since last December the Japanese have been shipping over the high seas cargoes of plutonium from France. Soon plutonium may also begin to flow from Britain.

Gram for gram, plutonium is the most dangerous substance in the world. Only nine kilograms are needed to make a nuclear weapon. Who will guard these ships on their long journeys? For a would-be predatory power to use a submarine or helicopter to stage a commando raid on the single poorly guarded Japanese escort warship is not outside the bounds of reasonable possibility.

Britain and Japan risk letting the nuclear genie out of its bottle for the second time in mankind's history. Wasn't once risky enough?

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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