Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Nuclear Non-Option

Yuri Kageyama has an interesting article out about the relationship between Japan's currently crippled civilian nuclear power program and Japan's need for a virtual nuclear weapon capability:
Japan’s muted pro-bomb voices become louder as nation debates phasing out nuclear power
Associated Press

TOKYO — A contentious debate over nuclear power in Japan is bringing another question out of the shadows: Should Japan keep open the possibility of making nuclear weapons — even if only as an option?

It may seem surprising in the only country devastated by atomic bombs, particularly as it marks the 67th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki three days later. The Japanese government officially renounces nuclear weapons, and the vast majority of citizens oppose them.

But as Japan weighs whether to phase out nuclear power, some conservatives, including some influential politicians and thinkers, are becoming more vocal about their belief that Japan should have at least the ability to make nuclear weapons.

The two issues are intertwined because nuclear plants can develop the technology and produce the fuel needed for weaponry, as highlighted by concerns that Iran is advancing a nuclear power program to mask bomb development...

Part of "interesting" is, sadly, sarcasm. The writing is often higgledy-piggledy, like the last paragraph quoted above. Until nuclear power plants grow arms and eyes, I would find it hard for any of them could develop any technology. Nuclear weaponry does not need fuel. And, as the Iranian nuclear fuel technology programs...oh forget, the paragraph is a lost cause.

Later in the article is the howler: "Japan has 45 tons of separated plutonium, enough for several Nagasaki-type bombs." As a commenter to the article has noted, 45 tons of separated plutonium can be converted in a bit more than "several" Nagasaki-type bombs.

As for the presumption behind the article, that defense and security commentators have heretofore been quiet about drawing a direct line between the operation of nuclear power plants and a nuclear deterrent, this is simply not true. Indeed, the article itself points out that an "outspoken" Ishihara Shintaro and Abe Shinzo have been asking for Japan to make more vigorous use of its virtual deterrent (Note to self: do not include in any argument evidence that contradicts the thesis).

The article concludes with this weird quote:
"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 [my emphasis - MTC], but it sends a very bad message to the international community."
When something is technically true, saying the opposite is technically false. Technically.

The end quote indicates the story that Kageyama has missed: that talking about a civilian nuclear power program as a virtual nuclear deterrent is just nuts.

In isolation, the position sounds rational: Japan is surrounded by nuclear weapons states; Japan needs a backstop should the U.S. withdraw its nuclear umbrella; North Korean threatens Japan so Japan should be able to pose an equal and opposite threat to North Korea; the international non-proliferation system, with its nuclear and non-nuclear states, is not only unequal, it has outliers and rogues like Israel, India and Pakistan who remain solidly encased in the international community.

However, the position cannot be put forward in isolation. When one tries to map out step-by-step scenarios where the U.S. abandons Japan, or where Japan unilaterally declares itself a nuclear weapons state, or where Japan pulls a South Africa/Israel assembled-in-secret trick -- and then one takes the further step of imagining how regional actors and the international community would react, one realizes one has fallen off the edge of the world.

To put in another way, Herman Kahn may have asked you to think the unthinkable, and you can flatter yourself thinking yourself up to that task. However, Aesop's much older Fables should remind us all that while, yes, having a bell on the cat would be nice...


Anonymous said...

Technically, it is not necessary true that nuclear plants are automatically linked to bombs (beyond the fact that advanced technology helps for both). It is true for most of the current uranium-based plants, because their technology was developed from bombs.

It's a sad thing that there is very little research in alternatives to uranium. Theoretically, thorium based plants are possible and much safer. Moreover, there is much more thorium than uranium, and it can't be used to make bombs. AFAIK, only India is currently doing a bit of research on this topic. No one talks about thorium when nuclear enegry is discussed.

Bryce said...

People have been talking about Japan's latent nuclear capability for years, often citing a study (or, better stated, two studies) undertaken by the government in 1968 and 1970 on the feasibility of a Japanese nuke. The usual remarks that people make about these studies is that the fact that they were undertaken in secret shows some sort of ulterior motive on the part of the government. Actually if you read them carefully (or at all), they show that the government concluded for technical, stategic, and economic reasons that nuclear weapons weren't worth having. Moreover, the reports of the studies concluded such weapons might meet domestic political goals, for example, to assuage the voices of nationalists (including, at the time, Ishihara Shintaro) who were strongly hinting that Japan should have them, but that any such political effect would only be temporary. In other words the official reports essentially nixed the idea of nuclear weapons as potentially useful for Japanese defense.

In any case, the idea of a Japan that maintains a "latent" or "virtual" nuclear deterrent is also closely bound to the idea that Japan could such weapons with credible delivery systems in six months or so. That might be the case if they were trying to make some sort of crude bomb, but, as the ACPW guys have pointed out, such a "deterrent" would not be particularly credible, given the capabilities of its potential "target."

We do know that Abe and Ishihara do like to talk, but talk is cheap.

Bryce said...

P.S. relevant link which I did not insert in my last comment:

sigma1 said...

While agreeing with much of the above comments, I do wonder if there is something more to the idea of a "virtual deterrent." China, from the point of view of realists, maintains a rather recessed nuclear posture - limited amounts of operationally ready strategic warheads and explicitly only for the purposes of second-strike. Assuming that that is not smoke and mirrors one has to wonder "why?" There are likely various reasons but it would be hard to ignore the possibility that the CCP/PLA has come to believe its own propganda about Japan and expects that any sharp movement to expand China nuclear program would give those crazy Japanese nationalists the opportunity they have always been waiting for in implementing a full nuclear with a large number of warheads and an operational trident. While the 6 months quote is childish - essentially the time it would take to make a uranium "bomb" (the 'easiest' kind of instrument) which is not particularly useful in of itself for deterrence, Japan has probably shortened the 3-5 years estimate since the 2006 article Bryce links to, and appears to be continuing to doing so, at least indirectly. Japan's BMD investments and co-producution of the SM-3 have ironically given a massive boost to Japan's ICBM technology capabilities, for example. I wouldn't rule out the idea that the Chinese look at Japan's civilian domestic nuclear program and factor it into their thoughts on how to evolve their nuclear posture. It may be the case that Japan would still refuse to go nuclear even if the Chinese upgraded their capability - but they don't know that, and are probably the most likely to ascribe ill intentions towards Japan's domestic civilian program.