As the bilateral relations between China and Japan hit rock bottom, Japan's stockpile of plutonium and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to start up a nuclear-fuel reprocessing facility are adding fuel to the fire.
Chinese government and state media have launched a wave of attacks on Japan's weapons-grade plutonium stockpiles and Abe's nuclear reprocessing policy.
"China," pronounced Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, "is extremely concerned over Japan's possession of weapons-grade nuclear materials." And Beijing's official news agency, Xinhua, stated that Japan "owes the world an explanation for its stockpile of plutonium."
"As the world's only victim of nuclear attacks," asserted Xinhua, "Japan should clearly understand the horrible consequences of nuclear proliferation. However, five decades are not long enough for the island country, where some politicians wish, openly or privately, for nuclear arms, to return the 331-kilogram of weapon-grade plutonium - enough for 40 to 50 nuclear bombs - it received from the United States during the Cold War. Japanese experts have said their country is capable of developing nuclear bombs within a year."
That material, originally given to Japan by the United States in the 1960s for research purposes, is not the only concern for China - Japan has already agreed to remove at least a portion of the weapons-grade plutonium to the U.S. "The question of Japan's plutonium," writes Shannon Tiezzi of the Diplomat, "is deeper than arguments over the fate of those 331 kilograms. In addition to the plutonium provided by the U.S. decades ago, Japan also has about 44 tons of lower-quality plutonium, stored both in Japan and abroad. The excess reserves are due to Japan's policy of reprocessing spent nuclear-fuel. Rather than storing spent fuel, Japan reprocesses it to separate out plutonium for re-use. Japan is the only non-nuclear weapon state to do so."
"Japan is on the verge of opening a new reprocessing plant at Rokkasho," says Tiezzi, "according to a recent report by the International Panel of Fissile Materials, this new plant would separate out about eight tons of plutonium each year - enough to make one thousand Nagasaki-type bombs. There is clear concern in China that Japan's plutonium reserves could eventually wind up being used to develop nuclear weapons. There's historical precedent for this - India became a nuclear-armed state after using reprocessing to gain nuclear materials."
As Japan is getting ready to start up its massive Rokkasho nuclear-fuel reprocessing facility in the northern Aomori prefecture, "it will force China to respond to re-establish that it, Beijing, not Tokyo, is the most dominant nuclear player in East Asia," warns Henry Sokolski, executive director of Washington's Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, "such nuclear tit-for-tats-manship could get ugly."
In fact, China is already responding to the ugly "nuclear tit-for-tats-manship." China is now constructing a new facility to reprocess spent nuclear-fuel. "The plant," reports Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon, "is expected to be built at the same scale as Rokkasho and capable of producing nine tons of plutonium annually. Beijing said the plant will be used only for civilian purposes. But China is estimated to have between 200 to 900 deployed nuclear weapons in its arsenal. And nuclear experts believe any sign Japan is expanding its ability to produce weapons-usable fissile materials will likely be matched by Beijing."
Publicly, Washington is defending Tokyo against Beijing's plutonium criticism. Joseph Macmanus, U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, declared in Vienna on March 6 that the United States was not worried about Japan's treatment of the material. "We are not at all concerned that the plutonium is either being handled improperly or that there isn't a plan for disposition," stated Ambassador Macmanus.
In private, however, the Obama administration fears that Japan's decision to set up a nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant may stoke a broader race for nuclear technologies and even weapons in East Asia. The White House has been quietly pressuring Japan to drop the reprocessing plan - to begin simply storing spent nuclear-fuel rather than separating out plutonium.
Japan's stockpile of plutonium and its new fuel reprocessing plant are "a type of nuclear deterrent - a signal that Japan could quickly build large numbers of nuclear weapons if it chose to do so," says Dr. Steve Fetter, former Assistant Director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Unfortunately, while Japan is merely trying to defend itself, Japanese moves have provoked angry Chinese responses and greatly intensified nuclear competition between the two Asian giants.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.