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04/08/2010 | Japan's New Civil Nuclear Turn

Saurav Jha

The focus on safety and nonproliferation are key to Japan's positioning in the new nuclear age as a country that can provide concrete, technically oriented solutions to enable the spread of safe nuclear energy.


Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada's reiteration of support last week for the Iranian fuel swap proposal outlined in the Tehran Declaration is the latest sign of a strategic reorientation in Japanese international nuclear policy. That this announcement was accompanied by reports of Japan exploring the possibility of constructing quake-resistant nuclear plants in Iran is further indication that a shift in Japanese nuclear diplomacy is being effected -- one that doesn't necessarily adhere to a U.S.-led approach, but instead seeks to leverage Japan's inherent strengths in the global nuclear renaissance to advance its own geopolitical interests.

Despite being the only country to have ever suffered a nuclear attack, Japan has over the years built up significant capability in the civil nuclear sphere. Thirty percent of its electricity requirements are supplied by nuclear energy. Japan also has the world's most mature nuclear manufacturing sector. For instance, 80 percent of the world's supply of reactor pressure vessels -- a critical component of light water reactors, which are the dominant type of nuclear reactor in use today -- originates from a single Japanese company. Besides having a major commercial nuclear energy segment, Japan is also a world leader in the research and development of various nuclear technologies, ranging from advanced proliferation-resistant fuel cycles to waste management and reactor safety.

The focus on safety and nonproliferation are key to Japan's positioning in the new nuclear age as a country that can provide concrete, technically oriented solutions to enable the spread of safe nuclear energy. An example is the training support Japan has provided over the past several years in all aspects of nuclear safety to personnel from Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech and Slovak Republics. The training assumes added significance given continued international concerns over safety standards in the nuclear sectors of the former Eastern Bloc.

With regard to Iran, Japan sees the Turkish- and Brazilian-sponsored fuel swap proposal as a constructive way out of the current crisis. Its vocal support indicates that Tokyo is willing to take a more prominent role in bringing Tehran back into compliance with its IAEA commitments, by offering nuclear cooperation with distinctly Japanese characteristics. Indeed, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani stated in late-February that "Iran will follow the Japanese model in its nuclear program," in the sense that Iran would have a full-cycle nuclear program while renouncing a nuclear weapons capability.

In fact, it seems that Japan is now keen to see other countries model their nuclear power programs in its own image. In June 2010, Japanese industry and government moved to set up the tentatively named International Nuclear Energy Development of Japan company, designed to export nuclear goods and services. The new company would solicit orders for nuclear plants from emerging nuclear countries and also advise on project and infrastructure development, bolstered by legislative and financing support from the Japanese government. Most of the target countries are, interestingly, either in the Middle East, where Japan has critical oil interests, or in Southeast Asia, which can prove an important ally in any confrontation in the Asia Pacific region.

The initiative aims to counter similar South Korean moves at an economic level, while strategically weaning away oil-rich countries from "dirty cooperation" with China. Needless to say, if Japan succeeds in becoming the chief partner to these countries on the nuclear front, it will significantly increase Japanese clout on a global scale. However, it should be noted that while Japanese-South Korean commercial competition in the nuclear arena is clearly heating up -- especially after South Korea won the multi-billion-dollar UAE civil nuclear energy sweepstakes -- so, too, is intelligence-sharing on nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula.

Japan's dealings with India provide further evidence of its new nuclear turn. Japan recently lifted the last of the sanctions it had imposed on the Asian giant following New Delhi's 1998 nuclear tests. The two sides are currently engaged in talks for a nuclear deal on the lines of the U.S.-India 123 agreement. The talks mark a shift in the Japanese position. Although Tokyo went along with the consensus on the Nuclear Suppliers Group exemption given to India, it was until recently reluctant to offer a deal to India, given the latter's refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, Japan now seems to have accepted India's nonproliferation record, a decision prompted to a large degree by the view that closer Indo-Japanese cooperation may prove crucial in balancing Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation, as well as the risk of an extended nuclear axis including North Korea and Myanmar.

Tokyo seems to have realized that it, too, must engage in something the Indian foreign policy establishment has sought for the past 30 years: unrestricted nuclear trade with the world. Cooperation on the nuclear front between India and Japan is likely to be wide-ranging, from civilian nuclear energy to intelligence-sharing on proliferation concerns. Interestingly, Indian and Japanese coast guards have recently been conducting joint drills in Asian waters, ostensibly aimed at curbing piracy.

Nuclear engagement with India has a geo-economic impetus as well. Japanese nuclear majors such as Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi have been lobbying the Japanese government for quite some time to remove restrictions from participating in nuclear trade with India, whose nuclear business potential is estimated to be in the $150 billion range. It also bears noting that any imported reactors heading toward India will have Japanese components, given the fact that the companies mentioned above either own or are in partnerships with American and European nuclear suppliers.

In recent years, Japan's "dollar diplomacy" has created the image of a nation eager to provide reconstruction packages following U.S. interventions in various parts of the world. However, there are signs that Tokyo may now be seeking to leverage its techno-economic prowess less as a corollary to U.S.-led initiatives and more as an independent player in its own right. It remains to be seen whether Japan's nuclear initiatives will also serve as a harbinger of greater Japanese self-confidence in global affairs.

**Saurav Jha studied economics at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy issues and clean energy development in Asia. His first book for Harper Collins India, "The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power," was published in January 2010. He also works as an independent consultant in the energy sector in India. He can be reached at

World Politics Review (Estados Unidos)


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