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Japan Nuclear Reactor Restart Seen Tied to Weapons-Capacity Desire

Japanese anti-nuclear demonstrators in Kobe hold a protest against government plans to resume atomic-energy production, as the country marks the third anniversary of the reactor meltdown at Fukushima. Some Japanese politicians reportedly want to see the country's nuclear reactors restarted and producing plutonium again because of the deterrence signal they feel it would send.
Japanese anti-nuclear demonstrators in Kobe hold a protest against government plans to resume atomic-energy production, as the country marks the third anniversary of the reactor meltdown at Fukushima. Some Japanese politicians reportedly want to see the country's nuclear reactors restarted and producing plutonium again because of the deterrence signal they feel it would send. (Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

One little-discussed reason behind calls for restarting Japan's atomic reactors is a desire by some to retain a latent capacity to build nuclear arms.

That's the conclusion of a new report published Wednesday by the Center for Public Integrity.

Tokyo decades ago decided against developing nuclear weapons, though it had the technical capability and resources to do so. Consecutive governments have stuck by that decision. However, some Japanese politicians continue to support the civilian atomic industry's generation of large amounts of surplus plutonium, because they feel it provides an important deterrence signal to possible rival nations.

"Inside Japan, and that is not only within the [opposition] Democratic Party of Japan, there are entities who wish to be able to maintain the ability to produce Japan’s own plutonium," said former Japanese Prime Minister and DPJ member Naoto Kan in an interview. "They do not say it in public, but they wish to have the capability to create nuclear weapons in case of a threat."

Kyoto University physicist Hiroaki Kodai has made similar claims over the years, but says the Japanese public generally is not receptive to them and they have "not been good for my career."

Japan's atomic power plants are still shut down three years after the reactor meltdown at Fukushima, a crisis that caused a nationwide outcry against nuclear energy. However, the conservative Shinzo Abe administration has decided to allow some reactors to begin operating again in the months to come. Prime Minister Abe of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Monday said reactors that are determined to be in compliance with post-Fukushima safety standards would be restarted.

Japan also remains committed to finishing work on a $22 billion mixed-oxide fuel fabrication plant at Rokkasho that, when operational, would produce large quantities of plutonium. The Pacific island nation already has considerable stores of excess plutonium, though, and is reportedly getting behind-the-scenes pressure from the United States to repatriate some U.S.-origin, warhead-suitable material. Washington also has been quietly urging Japan to improve security standards at its plutonium facilities.

Despite its desire to see Japan put limits on the production of additional plutonium, Washington has not lobbied Tokyo to ax the Rokkasho facility, current and former Japanese and U.S. officials told CPI reporters for their article.

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