Japan cedes control of nuclear cache to U.S.

Throwing in a ‘life extension program’ for the U.S. nuclear arsenal isn’t necessarily up a worthy upgrade — especially while Russia is modernizing its nuclear force, but by building entirely new weapons and systems, not patching up or upgrading older versions.

Japan will announce Monday that it will turn over to Washington more than 700 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium and a large quantity of highly enriched uranium, a decades-old research stockpile that is large enough to build dozens of nuclear weapons, according to U.S. and Japanese officials.

Japan’s agreement to transfer the material – the amount of highly enriched uranium has not been announced but is estimated at 200 kg – has both practical and political significance. For years these stores of weapons-grade material were not a secret, but were lightly guarded at best; a reporter for The New York Times who visited the main storage site at Tokaimura in the early 1990s found unarmed guards and a site less well protected than many banks. While security has improved, the stores have long been considered vulnerable.

Iran has cited Japan’s large stockpiles of bomb-ready material as evidence of a double standard about which nations can be trusted. And last month China began publicly denouncing Japan’s supply, in apparent warning that a rightward, nationalistic turn in Japanese politics could result in the country seeking its own weapons.

At various moments right-wing politicians in Japan have referred to the stockpile as a deterrent, suggesting that it was useful to have material so that the world knows Japan, with its advanced technological acumen, could easily fashion it into weapons.

The nuclear fuel being turned over to the United States, which is of American and British origin, is a fraction of Japan’s overall stockpile. Japan has more than 9 tons of plutonium stored in various locations, and in the fall it is scheduled to open a new nuclear fuel plant that could produce many tons more every year. U.S. officials have been quietly pressing Japan to abandon the program, arguing that the material is insufficiently protected even though much of it is in a form that would be significantly more difficult to use in a weapon than the supplies being sent to the United States.

Of the agreement with Japan, she said: “This is the biggest commitment to remove fissile materials in the history of the summit process that President Obama launched, and it is a demonstration of Japan’s shared leadership on nonproliferation.”

Sherwood-Randall said that even Russia “has continued to work on nuclear security at a professional level,” despite the tensions over Ukraine. But she conceded: “It is true that at this moment, we will not begin a new discussion about new arms control. This is not something the Russians are interested in at this time.”

In fact, Russia is modernizing its nuclear force. So is the United States: To pass the New START treaty in 2010, the administration told Congress it would spend upward of $80-billion on a “life extension” program for its existing nuclear arsenal, and it will cost far more to upgrade nuclear submarines in years ahead.

Full article: Japan cedes control of nuclear cache to U.S. (The Globe & Mail)

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