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Japan Signs Protocol on Heightened Nuclear-Material Security Standards

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

A container of mixed-oxide fuel is unloaded in June from a vessel at the Takahama nuclear energy plant in Japan's Fukui prefecture. Tokyo late last month signed a provision to an international nuclear security convention that spells out heightened safeguards for member countries. A container of mixed-oxide fuel is unloaded in June from a vessel at the Takahama nuclear energy plant in Japan's Fukui prefecture. Tokyo late last month signed a provision to an international nuclear security convention that spells out heightened safeguards for member countries. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

An international pact on heightened security standards for nuclear materials got one step closer to being implemented when Japan signed on late last month.

The island nation's signing of the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material means that another 22 countries are required to do the same before the pact can enter into force, according to a Friday International Atomic Energy Agency press release.

To date, 77 nations have signed the amendment, which was drafted in 2005 and requires signatories to take certain steps to safeguard civilian atomic facilities and stockpiles of nuclear material. The measures apply to material in active use, in storage and in transit. The amendment also provides a framework for nations to cooperate in rapidly responding to incidents where atomic materials go missing or are stolen.

The United States has yet to ratify the amendment, as implementing legislation remains stuck in Congress.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in a Monday speech in Vienna said achieving the entry into force of the amendment was "a major piece of unfinished business in international efforts to ensure that nuclear material is properly secured."

Miles Pomper, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in a Monday phone interview said the immediate impact of Japan signing the amendment would be minimal until the accord goes into effect. "These things are only as good as your domestic regulations are," he said. "But it's one more sign that the Japanese are taking nuclear security more seriously."

Japan possesses one of the world's largest stockpiles of civilian plutonium, which has become a source of concern for nonproliferation advocates and neighbors such as China. In an attempt to prove its nonproliferation bona fides, Tokyo earlier this year pledged to repatriate to the United States hundreds of kilograms of weapons-sensitive atomic substances.

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, argued the real nonproliferation concern in Japan lies outside the scope of the materials-security convention altogether -- namely, that Tokyo might one day decide to develop nuclear arms.

"While it certainly would be churlish to dismiss any upgrades to nuclear security, it also would be a mistake to think that this is a major leap forward in the prevention of the possibility of nuclear use," he told Global Security Newswire. "It's a step forward, and not a leap."

Pomper said Japan's signing of the amendment could help build critical momentum toward getting the remaining holdouts, such as Washington, to ratify the 2005 provision.

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