This week Japan’s Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) received a five-year license for uranium exploration in Uzbekistan’s Navoi region. The deal which Japan has been working on for the past couple of years is not all that out of the ordinary, Uzbekistan just like the rest of Central Asia, is a hotbed for great-power competition with the US, China, Russia, India and Japan competing for the countries resources.
Nonetheless, due to the growing anti-nuclear movement in Japan following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it seems strange that Japan’s national mineral resource company would be conducting uranium exploration. However, more importantly there are three worrying signs that may signal that Japan’s demand for uranium maybe more than just peaceful means.
Firstly, Japan which has always been viewed as ”nuclear ready” state possessing enough raw materials and technical knowhow to quickly develop nuclear weapons if necessary, seems to be making significant steps towards producing nuclear weapons. The Wall Street Journal published an article on May 1 indicating concerns in Washington that the opening of a huge reprocessing plant could be used to stockpile plutonium for the future manufacture of nuclear weapons.
The Rokkasho reprocessing facility in northern Honshu could produce nine tones of weapons-grade plutonium annually, this could be enough plutonium to produce 2,000 nuclear bombs. Tokyo has insisted that the plutonium will be used solely to provide nuclear power, despite this only two of the country’s 50 nuclear power reactors are currently operating and by March 2014 this is only expected to rise to eight.
The second issue is Japan is currently stockpiling many more tons of uranium and plutonium than is needed for Japan’s nuclear energy needs. Back in January 2011 two months before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan was planning to accumulate a stockpile of 120 tons of enriched uranium by 2015 marking the first time the government had stockpiled emergency supplies of nuclear fuel. However, since Japan’s Fukushima disaster uranium stockpile is creating an overhang on world markets, while uranium prices have dramatically decreased. Despite some analysts believing Uranium prices will increase by 2014 and Japanese stockpiles decreasing as more nuclear power plants go back online, the exploration of uranium in Uzbekistan seems poorly timed considering Japans massive stockpile and the ongoing problems with the global uranium market.
Back in June 2012 Japan Times reported that Japan had stockpiled 45 tons weapons grade plutonium 239, roughly enough plutonium for 5,000 nuclear warheads. One year on the Atomic Energy Commission reported that Japan currently possesses 44 tons of plutonium, with the stockpile only decreasing by 1 ton over the past year.
The third issue is back in April Japan refused to sign a document that described nuclear weapons as inhumane. Despite the document being only symbolic and not legally binding, Japans refusal to sign the document came as a shock, due to their anti-nuclear stance and declaration of peace under Article-9 of the Japanese constitution. The document which was signed by 70 states including South Africa and Switzerland was also snubbed by Russia, India, Pakistan and the United States, all nuclear powers.
The Asahi Shimbun wrote that Japanese officials had said the document’s wording “made it difficult to approve it because it would contradict Japan’s policy of reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for national security purposes.” On the other hand Prime Minister Abe said that Japan had a “responsibility to realize” a nuclear free world, but continued to justify Tokyo’s refusal to sign the UN pledge by saying Japan faced a “severe security environment” due to their proximity to North Korea.
Japan currently has the capabilities and resources to construct a nuclear bomb, and with increased tension in the East China Sea and on the Korean peninsula, Japan is rapidly developing it military and changing its security policy to counteract these threats. Whether Japan has already constructed a nuclear bomb and like Israel denies it, or whether Japan will soon start a nuclear program, we may never know until either the government admits it, or a nuclear crisis arises. However, Japan’s changing military policy, the stockpiling of nuclear material, the construction of new facilities and Japan’s unnecessary exploration in Uzbekistan, hints that Japan may be looking to join the “nuclear club,” to gain deterrence against its regional nuclear adversaries.