The History of U.S. Decision-making on Nuclear Weapons in Japan

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he favored placing conventional intermediate-range missiles in Asia following the demise of the INF treaty. While Secretary Esper did not indicate where the missiles might be deployed, many security experts believe Japan to be the most likely candidate. The tight U.S.-Japan security alliance built from the American Occupation has historically set up Japan as an ideal staging ground for U.S. weapons systems. Though Secretary Esper and most proposals for intermediate-range missiles in Asia refer to conventional weapons, because of their strategic importance, many Japanese are likely to read these proposals as part of a long and politically fractious history of US weapons deployments to Japanese territory that included nuclear weapons.

Japan’s strategic location in the Pacific coupled with the heavy American influence on the emerging democracy made it an attractive option to host U.S. nuclear weapons during the Cold War. U.S. control of Japan’s southern island chain presented a strategic opportunity to forward deploy tactical nuclear weapons into an increasingly volatile Pacific region where war planners anticipated their increased military utility as they planned force postures to respond to the aftermath of the Korean War and the Chinese Civil War.

Map showing locations of Okinawa, Iwo Jima, and Chichi Jima. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

In 1959, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi first declared that Japan would neither develop nor permit nuclear weapons on its territory. This declaration formed the cornerstone of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato’s 1967 establishment of Japan’s “three non-nuclear principles” which promise not to process, produce, or permit the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan. The Diet formally adopted these principles through a resolution in 1971, though they are not legally binding. Prime Minister Sato, worried that the three non-nuclear principles were too binding on Japan’s defense posture, supplemented the policy in February 1968 with his “four pillars nuclear policy.” The four pillars were to promote peaceful use of nuclear power, to work toward global nuclear disarmament, to rely on the extended U.S. nuclear deterrent, and to support the three non-nuclear principles.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. officials often complained that Japan’s “nuclear allergy” imposed constraints on U.S. nuclear force posture. But despite the Japanese government’s public anti-nuclear stance, the nuances of the bilateral security relationship and treaty language emboldened the U.S. to deploy nuclear weapons to Japan in the mid-1950s. The occupation of mainland Japan ended in 1951 but the Treaty of San Francisco allowed the U.S. to maintain its control over Japan’s southern island chains, which include the islands of Okinawa, Iwo Jima, and Chichi Jima. War planners worried that compromised communication systems in a time of crisis would make emergency deployments and transfers of nuclear weapons difficult or impossible, so they sought to establish a forward deployed posture in the Pacific.

The bulk of the nuclear weapons were stored on Okinawa at the Henoko Ordnance Ammunition Depot adjacent from Camp Schwab and the Kadena Ammunition Storage Area at Kadena Air Base, where SAC’s strategic bombers were based. Between 1954 and 1972, the bases on Okinawa hosted 19 different types of nuclear weapons. At the height of the Vietnam War, around 1,200 nuclear weapons were stored on Okinawa alone. A document declassified in 2017 shows that in 1969 Japan officially consented to the U.S. bringing nuclear weapons to Okinawa.

Every American president from 1952 onward remained publicly committed to the reversion of Okinawa, but was privately reluctant to initiate the hand-over. During the 1950s to mid-1960s, the Japanese were largely willing to accept reversion as a distant goal, in part because the U.S.-backed Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that held power in the post-Occupation era was hesitant to challenge the U.S. on the issue. The Japanese government also recognized the security value of U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa, given Japan’s restraining pacifist constitution. However, in the late-1960s, pressure began to build from the Okinawans and the mainland Japanese establishment to return the island to Japan.

Prime Minister Sato first raised the issue with the U.S. in 1967 during talks with President Johnson. President Johnson responded that because of the 1968 election and the war in Vietnam, the U.S. would be unable to address reversion of Okinawa until 1969 at the earliest. In March of 1969, Henry Kissinger sent President Nixon a memo outlining the Japanese demands for reversion as well as the relevant military and political considerations. While the memo acknowledged that public demand within Japan for reversion was growing politically untenable for Prime Minister Sato, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were primarily concerned about the effect of reversion on nuclear storage and military activities such as B-52 operations against Vietnam. On nuclear storage, Kissinger wrote, “The loss of Okinawan nuclear storage would degrade nuclear capabilities in the Pacific and reduce our flexibility.”

Top secret agreement allowing the U.S. to maintain emergency reactivation of nuclear weapons storage on U.S. bases in Okinawa. (Image courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists.)

While the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted the Nixon Administration to push for continued nuclear storage post-reversion, Kissinger wrote that it was unlikely that the Japanese Diet would support it in face of growing public dissatisfaction, even if Prime Minister Sato agreed. Kissinger added that “…in the slim possibility that Japanese agreement to nuclear storage is obtained, we must recognize that the Japanese proponents of this position view this as the opening wedge for an independent Japanese nuclear force.” Kissinger recommended that the U.S. return Okinawa to Japanese control and give up nuclear storage on the island in order to maintain basing rights, emergency nuclear storage rights, and full nuclear transit rights.

Prime Minister Sato and President Nixon agreed to the reversion of Okinawa in 1969. The agreement contained a secret clause permitting the U.S. to reintroduce nuclear weapons to its Okinawa bases in the case of an emergency. Okinawa was officially returned to Japan in 1972 and shortly after all U.S. nuclear warheads were withdrawn.

In 2016, the U.S. government officially declassified the fact that nuclear weapons were deployed to Okinawa before 1972. It also declassified “the fact that prior to the reversion of Okinawa to Japan that the U.S. Government conducted internal discussion, and discussions with Japanese government officials regarding the possible re-introduction of nuclear weapons onto Okinawa in the event of an emergency or crisis situation.”

While military planners believed the forward deployed nuclear weapons on Okinawa were useful in launching potential attacks against China, Russia, or Vietnam, they feared that in the event of nuclear war with either China or Russia, the U.S. bases on Okinawa would be attacked and destroyed early. In order to maintain a viable second salvo in the Pacific, nuclear weapons were also stored on the U.S.-controlled islands of Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima. Iwo Jima became a fallback support station for the Far East Air Force, maintaining an unknown arsenal of atomic bombs that bombers could pick up for a second strike after dropping their first load on China or Russia. Chichi Jima was outfitted with W5 nuclear warheads for Regulus missiles to serve as a reload point for Regulus submarines if U.S. bases in Japan, Pearl Harbor, Guam, and Adak were destroyed in nuclear war.

The U.S. maintained nuclear weapons as well as other military support structures on Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima into the mid-1960s. The Japanese had been pushing for return of Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, and Okinawa since the mid-1950s and by 1964, U.S. diplomats in Tokyo also began pressuring Washington to return the islands to Japan, believing it vital to maintaining the cooperative and positive relationship the two countries shared. President Johnson, realizing that returning Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima would be a necessary concession in order to delay the return of the more strategically valuable island of Okinawa, reverted control of Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima to Japan in 1968. All nuclear weapons were removed from the islands by the time of their reversion, but the agreement President Johnson and Foreign Minister Takeo Miki signed would allow the U.S. to redeploy nuclear weapons to the islands in an emergency, upon consultation with the Japanese government. The U.S. government has not confirmed the deployment of nuclear weapons to Iwo Jima or Chichi Jima.

In addition to the nuclear weapons stored on Japan’s southern island chains, the U.S. allegedly stored nuclear weapons without the fissile cores on the Japanese mainland at Misawa and Itazuki airbases until 1965, avoiding by mere semantic technicality violation of Japan’s sovereignty and the integrity of Japan’s three non-nuclear principles. Nuclear armed naval ships were also allegedly allowed to transit Japanese waters and dock at mainland ports with tacit Japanese approval into the 1980s under an oral agreement the two countries made when Japan and the U.S. renegotiated the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty in 1960.

While the U.S. government has never confirmed that U.S. naval ships carrying nuclear weapons visited Japanese ports, there are two instances that support this claim. In 1974, retired Rear Admiral Gene La Rocque who formally commanded a flagship of the Seventh Fleet, testified before Congress that “any ship capable of carrying nuclear weapons carries nuclear weapons. They do not unload them when they go into foreign ports such as Japan or other countries.”

In 1981, Edwin O. Reischauer, former U.S. Ambassador to Tokyo during the 1960s, acknowledged in a newspaper interview that Japan was permitting U.S. naval ships carrying nuclear weapons to transit Japanese ports under the aforementioned oral agreement. According to Reischauer, American warships could bring nuclear weapons into Japanese waters and ports during routine visits but were not allowed to be unloaded or stored in Japan. The agreement allowed the same freedom to U.S. military planes carrying nuclear weapons.

Both disclosures incited protests from the Japanese public, which has adamantly maintained its anti-nuclear posture since U.S. atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. However, the historical record shows that the Japanese executive branch, dominated for decades by conservative LDP politicians, has at times acquiesced to asserted U.S. military necessities when it comes to nuclear weapons.

The coalitional Diet however has been historically reluctant to publicly support such domestically unpopular measures as allowing U.S. nuclear weapons into Japanese territory or developing an independent nuclear force. This reluctance extends to the possible deployment of conventional intermediate-range missiles being discussed among U.S. defense specialists today.

Policymakers and analysts should be aware of the complex history of US weapons deployments to Japan when discussing future deployments. It should be expected that proposed deployments will face similarly strong political reactions from activists, civil society groups, and communities who remember this history first hand.

“Fact of” Nuclear Weapons on Okinawa Declassified

Updated below

The Department of Defense revealed this week that “The fact that U.S. nuclear weapons were deployed on Okinawa prior to Okinawa’s reversion to Japan on May 15, 1972” has been declassified.

While this is indeed news concerning classification policy, it does not represent new information about Okinawa.

According to an existing Wikipedia entry, “Between 1954 and 1972, 19 different types of nuclear weapons were deployed in Okinawa, but with fewer than around 1,000 warheads at any one time” (citing research by Robert S. Norris, William M. Arkin and William Burr that was published in 1999 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). As often seems to be the case, declassification here followed disclosure, not the other way around.

If there is any revelation in the new DoD announcement, it is that this half-century-old historical information was still considered classified until now. As such, it has been an ongoing obstacle to the public release of records concerning the history of Okinawa and US-Japan relations.

Because this information had been classified as “Formerly Restricted Data” under the Atomic Energy Act rather than by executive order, its declassification required the concurrence of the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and (in this case) the Department of State. Any one of those agencies had the power to veto the decision to declassify, or to stymie it by simply refusing to participate.

Instead, the information was declassified as a result of a new procedure adopted by the Obama Administration to coordinate the review of nuclear weapons-related historical material that is no longer sensitive but that has remained classified under the Atomic Energy Act by default. The new procedure had been recommended by a 2012 report from the Public Interest Declassification Board, and was adopted by the White House-led Classification Reform Committee.

Also newly declassified and affirmed this week was “The fact that prior to the reversion of Okinawa to Japan that the U.S. Government conducted internal discussion, and discussions with Japanese government officials regarding the possible re-introduction of nuclear weapons onto Okinawa in the event of an emergency or crisis situation.”

Such individual declassification actions could go on indefinitely, since there are innumerable other “facts” whose continued classification cannot reasonably be justified by current circumstances. A more systemic effort to recalibrate national security classification policy government-wide is to be performed over the coming year.

Update: The National Security Archive posted the first officially declassified document on nuclear weapons in Okinawa, which was released in response to its request. See Nuclear Weapons on Okinawa Declassified, February 19, 2016.

A Looming Crisis of Confidence in Japan’s Nuclear Intentions

Nearly two years into Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s second stint at governing Japan, his tenure has been characterized by three primary themes. The first two themes include his major legislative priorities: enabling Japan’s economic revival and bringing Japan closer to the status of a “normal” country that takes on a greater share of its own security needs. Both of these priorities are largely celebrated in the United States, which longs to see Japan become a more able and active partner in the region.  A third theme has not been well received in Washington: the prime minister’s apparent efforts to whitewash Japan’s wartime past.  Through personal expressions of admiration for convicted war-criminals, an official reinvestigation of past apologies for war-time atrocities, and appointments of hardline nationalists to prominent posts (such as the NHK board of governors), the prime minister’s actions have raised the spectre among wary neighbors of a Japanese return to militarism and begun raising eyebrows even among friends in Washington.

It is against this backdrop that Japan is now attempting to reinstate its nuclear energy program.  Japan, which, not long ago, had planned to generate half of its electricity from nuclear power by 2030, has watched its nuclear reactors sit largely idle since the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Abe’s government views nuclear restarts as a critical pillar of his first legislative priority—Japan’s economic recovery.  However, observers both outside and inside Japan note that, in addition to providing Japan the baseload electricity that its economy craves, the country’s sophisticated nuclear energy program effectively serves a dual purpose, providing Japan a latent nuclear weapons capability as well.

Citing Abe’s particular treatment of historical issues, some have begun to question whether reinstatement of Japan’s nuclear program is really more about the prime minister’s security goals than his economic agenda. China, for one, has hinted at allegations of a Japanese nuclear weapons program—after a recent incident in which Japan negotiated to repatriate an aging store of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to the United States, Chinese media propagated a narrative that twisted the event into evidence of Japan’s militaristic intentions.1)See for example: Chong Liu, “Japan’s Plutonium Problem.” China Internet Information Center, 21 March 2014. Web. 23 September 2014. Koreans have begun expressing similar concerns.2)See for example: “Is Japan Going Nuclear?: The international Community Ought to Strongly Say ‘No.’” The Korea Times. Hankook Ilbo, 14 March 2014. Web 23 September 2014.

In fact, Japan’s current movement towards a more normal military posture is not entirely unrelated to the push to restart the country’s nuclear energy program—it was the Fukushima nuclear disaster that both idled Japan’s nuclear fleet and helped enable the return of the more hawkish LDP government. But the relationship likely ends there.  As a legacy of World War II, Japanese society’s discomfort with the idea of a “normal” Japan has restricted Abe’s normalization efforts to steps that are only modest by any comparable measure.3)Green, Michael and Jeffrey W. Hornung, “Ten Myths about Japan’s Collective Self-Defense Change.” The Diplomat. 10 July 2014. Web 27 October 2014. Events that have conspired to suggest the possibility of Japanese nuclear weapons are reflective of awkward timing and, perhaps, less than acute politics, but not likely of some new militant spirit in Japanese society. Unfortunately, as Japan pushes to restart its nuclear energy program in the months and years ahead, circumstances are aligning that will amplify—not mitigate—alarm over Japan’s nuclear intentions.


Japan’s Plutonium Economy

For a tangle of social and legal reasons, the restart of Japanese reactors is tied together with operation of Japan’s nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho Village in Aomori Prefecture.  Under agreements with reactor host communities, utilities cannot operate reactors unless there is somewhere for nuclear fuel to go once it has been used.  Because Japan lacks a geological repository and nearly all plant sites lack dry cask storage facilities,4)Fukushima Daiichi, coincidentally, is one of two exceptions.  There is some evidence that, post-Fukushima, momentum may be building for acceptance of on-site interim storage.  In 2013, the Governor of Shizuoka Prefecture, which hosts the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant, broke with precedent in suggesting that the plant should develop interim storage as an enhanced safety measure. Rokkasho is currently the only viable destination for spent fuel from Japan’s reactors. Unless this situation changes, Japan is effectively unable to operate reactors without Rokkasho.

Rokkasho itself is, in turn, effectively dependent on Japan’s operating reactors.  According to a sort of public-private arrangement that has been in place since before Fukushima, Japanese utilities send spent nuclear fuel to Rokkasho, where it is separated into waste and fissionable MOX (mixed uranium and plutonium oxides) powder.  MOX is processed into fresh reactor fuel and sent back to Japan’s reactors.  High-level waste is ultimately sent to a geological repository that is to be built in a different prefecture (one of Aomori Prefecture’s conditions for originally agreeing to host the reprocessing plant). Of Japan’s reactors, 16 to 18 of the 54 that were operating prior to the Fukushima accident would, after receiving local government consent, consume MOX in an effort to maximize use of Japan’s limited energy resources.  That was the plan—prior to the Fukushima disaster, anyway.

As a legacy of the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s nuclear reactors currently sit idle.  The six at Fukushima Daiichi will never operate again, nor will a number of others that are older, particularly vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis, or for other reasons not worth the trouble and expense of restarting.  While impossible to predict for certain, a consensus seems to be emerging among experts and industry watchers that post-Fukushima, somewhere in the order of half of Japan’s original 54 reactors will return to service under Japan’s new regulatory regime. Currently, two reactors (Sendai 1 and 2 in southwestern Japan) have cleared safety reviews from Japan’s new regulator, the Japan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (JNRA), and now appear headed towards restart this winter.  Eighteen more reactors await review from the JNRA. Of those 20 reactors, only five5)Three further Japanese reactors had received approvals for MOX but have not applied for restart authorization. have received consent to use MOX, but that was prior to Fukushima.  All 20 reactor restarts depend on the promise of a functioning Rokkasho. But if Rokkasho were to restart on a similar timeframe as the reactors, one thing is certain—there will be far fewer than the originally envisioned 16 to 18 reactors available to consume the MOX when the plant starts up.6)Furthermore, the plant that will fabricate the MOX powder into reactor fuel is not planned to be operational until October 2017, meaning that any MOX powder produced by Rokkasho will have to wait until after that date to be consumed, the status of Japanese MOX-burning reactors notwithstanding.


Reactor Restart X-Factors

As with Rokkasho, the question of when the JNRA will conclude its reviews of the next eighteen reactors remains quite murky.  However, it stands to reason that ultimately most, if not all, of the reactors that have applied for restart will ultimately pass safety inspections.  Japan’s electric power companies are unlikely to have invested the time and resources in plant upgrades and regulatory application had they less than a high degree of confidence that they would qualify under Japan’s new regime.  Likewise, there is little question that Japan’s LDP government (assuming an LDP government at the time of restart) would stand in the way of restarts.  But the JNRA and national government are only two of the three main factors in restarting Japan’s reactors—leaders of the towns and prefectures that host nuclear power plants have a de facto say in the matter as well.

The conventional wisdom is that local leaders have strong financial incentives to restart the nuclear power plants that they host: government and industry have historically lavished incentives on host communities and prefectures in order to overcome any inclination toward local resistance. In one sense, local governments have over time become dependent on plants and can ill afford to forego not only the government and utility incentives, but also the base of jobs and tax revenues they represent.  On the other hand, communities need now only look to the example of the towns that have been rendered uninhabitable by the Fukushima disaster to see a terrifyingly clear picture of their tradeoff.

In some cases, apparently including the Sendai reactors, it is unlikely that local government would stand in the way of restarts.  Earthquakes are less common in Kyushu,7)Kyushu, the island on which the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant is located, is one of four main islands that comprise the Japanese archipelago.  Kyushu sits to the southwest of Japan’s main island, Honshu, where Fukushima Daiichi is located roughly in the center, on the Pacific coast.  The Sendai reactors are located approximately 700 miles southwest of Fukushima Daiichi. the geography on the west coast is less prone to large tsunamis, and local residents may take comfort in the fact that Sendai reactors are pressurized water reactors—not the boiling water rector type used at Fukushima Daiichi.  But in other cases, local approvals may not be as certain. Take for example TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Nagano prefecture, where Governor Izumida has very publicly challenged TEPCO.  He has insisted that, irrespective of the findings of the JNRA, with the Fukushima Daiichi reactor cores still too highly radioactive to investigate and verify the true nature of the accident, he will be unwilling to allow the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors to restart.

In addition to the local government factor, an X-factor may be emerging—preemptive lawsuits against reactor restarts. Earlier this year, in Fukui prefecture where political leadership otherwise favors nuclear power, a citizens group brought a lawsuit alleging an inadequate basis for confidence in the restart of the Oi plant.8)Ota Ko. “Fukui court deals setback to Kansai Electric bid to restart Oi reactors.” The Asahi Shimbun AJW. The Asahi Shimbun. 21 May 2014. Web. 23 September 2014. More recently, a second lawsuit has been brought by the city of Hakodate (Hokkaido prefecture) against the yet-to-be completed Ohma plant in nearby Aomori prefecture.9)Isozaki Kozue. “Court hears first arguments in Oma nuclear plant lawsuit.” The Asahi Shimbun AJW. The Asahi Shimbun. 4 July 2014. Web. 23 September 2014. In the case of Oi, a local judge sided with the plaintiffs, but the decision has been appealed by Kansai Electric Power Company, and the case is all but certain to drag out until long past the serviceable lifetime of the Oi reactors.  The Hakodate case is ongoing.

It is possible that Governor Izumida is an outlier and that the Fukui and Hakodate challenges will prove to be ineffective and isolated. However, it is equally possible that there are more Governor Izumidas and lawsuits yet to come. Furthermore, what is undeniable is that these cases have set a precedent and raised public pressure on local officials to seriously consider opposing restart of local reactors even if they do pass JNRA safety inspections. In any case, it is premature to presume that once the JNRA has rendered a safety verdict, reactor restart is imminent.


The MOX Question

Within the concurrent push to open Rokkasho and restart reactors, the availability of MOX-burning reactors seems to be assumed. But, notwithstanding all of the other hurdles facing nuclear reactor restarts in Japan, MOX fuel itself has been a subject of controversy and public discomfort since even before the Fukushima disaster.  As utilities received approvals to burn MOX fuel and subsequently began receiving shipments of MOX from Europe (where it had been processed on behalf of Japan’s utilities), they were met with consistent and passionate public protests.  These protests were typically confined to a cohort of smaller national-level interest groups that argue that using MOX elevates risk in transportation and regular reactor operation.10)By coincidence, Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 was one of only four reactors in Japan that were using MOX fuel at the time of the accident, and, as the American Nuclear Society argues, MOX has not yet been shown to have contributed to the disaster any differently than the conventional fuel in Units 1 and 2. See: Brady Raap, Michaele. The Impact of Mixed Oxide Fuel Use on Accident Consequences at Fukushima Daiichi. Chicago, Il: American Nuclear Society. American Nuclear Society Technical Brief, March 2011. Available at  On a national scale, prior to Fukushima the fuel cycle has been a relatively fringe issue—MOX had been a largely unfamiliar acronym to the public.  Post-Fukushima, as utilities push for restarts amidst an atmosphere of heightened public scrutiny, there will be no free pass for MOX.  For nuclear energy opponents, the prospect of MOX usage would provide one more narrative with which to hammer against proposed reactor restarts.

At the macro level, utilities share in the incentive to burn MOX fuel as they depend on Rokkasho, and Rokkasho is hard to rationalize in the absence of a functioning MOX program. However, in a much more tangible and immediate sense, utilities desperately need their reactors up and running again.  Most of Japan’s utilities have posted consistent losses since their reactors were relegated to nonperforming assets on their balance sheets and they were forced to substitute expensive fossil fuels for relatively cheaper nuclear power.  For Japan’s utilities, restarting nuclear reactors could be a life or death proposition.  That being the case, can it be taken for granted that utilities will risk complicating their restart efforts by forging ahead with plans to burn MOX?  Will the government create explicit incentive for utilities to do so?  Given enhanced public scrutiny, it cannot be assumed that the pre-Fukushima local approvals for MOX usage will be honored anyway.

The Japanese government’s 2014 energy policy (despite reaffirming Japan’s commitment to its beleaguered ‘no surplus plutonium’ policy), gives blessing to proceeding with Rokkasho (recognizing that, among other things, if it didn’t, Aomori threatens to send the spent nuclear fuel right back to the plants of origin). But even assuming that the five MOX reactors under regulatory review do receive restart approval and recommence MOX burning, the original goal of 16 to 18 Japanese reactors burning MOX fuel seems far off.11)It is worth noting that one of these sixteen to eighteen reactors was to include the under-construction Ohma plant in Aomori prefecture, but as previously noted, Ohma is subject of an ongoing lawsuit. There has been some suggestion that Rokkasho could restart slowly, at a throughput commensurate with the ability to consume MOX.  However, as Meiji University Professor Tadahiro Katsuta points out, reducing throughput of Rokkasho effectively raises the per-unit cost of MOX, necessitating a reexamination of the cost basis on which the MOX program was justified to Japanese ratepayers.12)Katsuta Tadahiro, “The Influence of the Fukushima Accident on Japan’s Reprocessing Policy and the Challenges Ahead” (working paper, Graduate School of Humanities, Meiji University, 2014).


Rokkasho Controversy

Even outside of the MOX capacity question, Rokkasho is not without controversy.  Officially, Rokkasho is justified as an investment in energy security for Japan. However, from the standpoint of global nonproliferation concerns, Japan sets an uncomfortable precedent with Rokkasho.  While otherwise a leading global champion for peace and nuclear disarmament, Japan is the only non-nuclear weapons country to possess a commercial nuclear fuel recycling program. Whereas global nonproliferation efforts prioritize limiting the spread of reprocessing capabilities, Rokkasho has enabled Iran, for one, to point to Japan in defending the legitimacy of its own fuel cycle activities.  South Korea, seeking American consent for a Korean recycling program, also cites Japan’s example in negotiating a replacement for the U.S.-ROK nuclear cooperation agreement that expires in 2016.

Controversial or not, Japan’s leaders feel compelled to push forward with Rokkasho and through an agreement under section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act,13)Section 123 of the United States Atomic Energy Act requires so-called “123 agreements” determining the conditions for nuclear cooperation with a given foreign state.  For further details, see: “The U.S. Atomic Energy Act Section 123 At a Glance.” Arms Control Association, 2013. Web 27 October 2014. they enjoy the support of the United States government. American consent to Rokkasho is only guaranteed through 2018, but the United States, which granted consent in 1988 largely out of deference to diplomatic concerns, for the same reason is highly unlikely to withdraw consent in 2018. Given the effective concurrence of the 2018 date with U.S.-ROK negotiations and the looming startup of Rokkasho in the face of low (or no) capacity to consume MOX, timing has become extremely awkward.

As Rokkasho proceeds towards restart, public reaction from Washington has been surprisingly muted.  Perhaps this reflects appreciation for the energy conundrum in which Japan finds itself, or tacit consent that bringing Japan’s nuclear industry back onto solid footing after the Fukushima disaster was always going to be awkward—Japan has an inherent chicken or egg dilemma in restarting Rokkasho and its reactors. But the reality is that Japan’s situation puts Washington in a very tough spot.  Washington is effectively complicit in what might appear to be Japanese disregard for its own commitments to global nonproliferation.  This poses a risk to the global nonproliferation regime and American credibility on the subject.



Global nonproliferation principles undoubtedly remain a high priority for Japan.  But it is likely that in the short term, the eyes of Japan’s leaders are focused more intently on bringing nuclear reactors back on line. Particularly in the context of Prime Minister Abe’s provocative views on history, the perception outside of Japan is certain to be one of alarm if Japan is seen to be separating plutonium without a credible pathway for its disposition.  While the coincidence of the 2016/2018 Korea and Japan 123 agreements and Japan’s reentry into nuclear energy will shine a spotlight on the American role in Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle scheme, it is seen as highly unlikely that the United States will attempt to withdraw from or renegotiate the 123 agreement with Japan irrespective of Japan’s plutonium balance concerns.  This will effectively make the United States appear complicit in Japan’s growing inventory of plutonium.

For the United States, this situation has consequences on three fronts.  Firstly, Japan’s apparent failure to abide by its plutonium commitments undercuts American interests in limiting fuel cycle capabilities through treaty agreements. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ongoing U.S.-ROK 123 agreement negotiations. Secondly, Japan is a leader, if not the symbolic face of the global nonproliferation regime. For Japan to be separating plutonium for no demonstrable purpose dramatically undercuts its own leadership on nonproliferation and aggravates the already controversial precedent it sets with its fuel cycle program, elevating the risk of proliferation in the region. Thirdly, at just the time when the United States is working to underscore its alliance with Japan as the bedrock of its security presence in East Asia, Japan’s growing plutonium surplus will only exacerbate concerns of Japan’s return to militarism, eroding its legitimacy and efficacy as a partner in regional security.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the United States has appeared somewhat ambivalent in its response to Japan’s efforts to restart its nuclear energy system.  However, the American stake in Japan’s road ahead is profound. While it is not the case in all foreign capitals, in Tokyo, opinions and preferences from Washington are meaningful. Washington, particularly the Department of State and Department of Energy, has an opportunity to protect American interests by formulating and articulating an unambiguous American position on Japan’s path forward on nuclear energy to Japan’s leadership.

The critical interest of the United States would be for Japan to demonstrate clear commitment to the no-surplus plutonium policy and to the global nonproliferation regime.  As elements of a policy that might be necessary to make that happen, the United States should urge Japan’s leadership and utilities to:

  • Articulate a plan for plutonium disposition that provides quantifiable and publicly demonstrable benchmarks for reducing Japan’s plutonium inventory.
  • Call for official, temporary suspension of operations at Rokkasho until MOX burners or another credible disposition pathway for Japan’s separated fissile materials, is available.
  • Advocate operating Rokkasho (if and when started), at an output rate that is no more than commensurate with plutonium disposition goals and available means for plutonium disposition.
  • Encourage utilization of temporary dry-cask storage of spent nuclear fuel in order to enhance safety at reactor sites while expanding nuclear fuel cycle policy options. One of the rare positive stories to emerge from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster was the robustness of dry cask storage. Utilities and the government should capitalize on this success story and prioritize arrangements with local communities to allow for expeditious transfer of spent nuclear fuel from wet-storage to on-site dry casks.

There is no nuclear weapons program in Japan’s foreseeable future. However, there is a significant risk of an outward appearance that suggests otherwise to South Korea, China, North Korea, Iran, and the rest of the world.  Whether or not appearance differs from reality, the real world consequences would likely be the same. While Japan has serious and immediate energy concerns, it also has a very deep and fundamental commitment to global nonproliferation. With support from friends in Washington, Japan must face its looming nuclear energy challenges head on with eyes fully open. The stakes are too high to allow current circumstances to dictate their own outcomes.

Next year is the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The event would provide a fitting platform for Prime Minister Abe to recognize opportunities in Japan’s current crisis and make bold decisions on Japan’s nuclear energy program.  The right decisions can help regain global confidence in Japan’s intentions, while reminding the world of Japan’s unwavering commitment to nuclear safety and nonproliferation. The anniversary would make an equally unfortunate occasion to demonstrate otherwise.


Ryan Shaffer is an Associate Director of Programs at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, D.C., where he manages Japan and Northeast Asia policy programs including the Mansfield-FAS U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group. Prior to joining the Mansfield Foundation, Mr. Shaffer served as a research analyst for the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.


Notes   [ + ]

1. See for example: Chong Liu, “Japan’s Plutonium Problem.” China Internet Information Center, 21 March 2014. Web. 23 September 2014.
2. See for example: “Is Japan Going Nuclear?: The international Community Ought to Strongly Say ‘No.’” The Korea Times. Hankook Ilbo, 14 March 2014. Web 23 September 2014.
3. Green, Michael and Jeffrey W. Hornung, “Ten Myths about Japan’s Collective Self-Defense Change.” The Diplomat. 10 July 2014. Web 27 October 2014.
4. Fukushima Daiichi, coincidentally, is one of two exceptions.  There is some evidence that, post-Fukushima, momentum may be building for acceptance of on-site interim storage.  In 2013, the Governor of Shizuoka Prefecture, which hosts the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant, broke with precedent in suggesting that the plant should develop interim storage as an enhanced safety measure.
5. Three further Japanese reactors had received approvals for MOX but have not applied for restart authorization.
6. Furthermore, the plant that will fabricate the MOX powder into reactor fuel is not planned to be operational until October 2017, meaning that any MOX powder produced by Rokkasho will have to wait until after that date to be consumed, the status of Japanese MOX-burning reactors notwithstanding.
7. Kyushu, the island on which the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant is located, is one of four main islands that comprise the Japanese archipelago.  Kyushu sits to the southwest of Japan’s main island, Honshu, where Fukushima Daiichi is located roughly in the center, on the Pacific coast.  The Sendai reactors are located approximately 700 miles southwest of Fukushima Daiichi.
8. Ota Ko. “Fukui court deals setback to Kansai Electric bid to restart Oi reactors.” The Asahi Shimbun AJW. The Asahi Shimbun. 21 May 2014. Web. 23 September 2014.
9. Isozaki Kozue. “Court hears first arguments in Oma nuclear plant lawsuit.” The Asahi Shimbun AJW. The Asahi Shimbun. 4 July 2014. Web. 23 September 2014.
10. By coincidence, Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 was one of only four reactors in Japan that were using MOX fuel at the time of the accident, and, as the American Nuclear Society argues, MOX has not yet been shown to have contributed to the disaster any differently than the conventional fuel in Units 1 and 2. See: Brady Raap, Michaele. The Impact of Mixed Oxide Fuel Use on Accident Consequences at Fukushima Daiichi. Chicago, Il: American Nuclear Society. American Nuclear Society Technical Brief, March 2011. Available at
11. It is worth noting that one of these sixteen to eighteen reactors was to include the under-construction Ohma plant in Aomori prefecture, but as previously noted, Ohma is subject of an ongoing lawsuit.
12. Katsuta Tadahiro, “The Influence of the Fukushima Accident on Japan’s Reprocessing Policy and the Challenges Ahead” (working paper, Graduate School of Humanities, Meiji University, 2014).
13. Section 123 of the United States Atomic Energy Act requires so-called “123 agreements” determining the conditions for nuclear cooperation with a given foreign state.  For further details, see: “The U.S. Atomic Energy Act Section 123 At a Glance.” Arms Control Association, 2013. Web 27 October 2014.

In Closing

Last week, I was walking through Ueno Park as part of my annual cherry blossom pilgrimage. Among the trees and temples, I came across “The Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” I was deeply moved to read the story of Tatsuo Yamamoto, who went to Hiroshima in search of his uncle following the bombing and instead found a flame burning in the ruins of his uncle’s house. Yamamoto-san retrieved the flame and brought it back to his hometown of Hoshino-mura as a memorial. Over the years, the flame was preserved by the town and became a symbol of the desire to abolish nuclear weapons. In time, the flame was merged with another lit by the friction of broken roofing tiles of Nagasaki. That flame was then carried to the Third Special Session of the UN General Assembly for Disarmament. The next year, the “Association for the Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Lit at Ueno Toshogu” erected “The Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Memorial” to permanently enshrine the flame in Ueno Park.

Over the last year, I have been privileged to meet victims of the Hiroshima bombing and work with academics helping to preserve the stories of fallout victims from the Pacific Proving Grounds nuclear tests. Unfortunately, many victims are now reaching the end of their lives. So too are their contemporaries who lived through the great World Wars. In the short-term, decisions on international security will be inherited by the subsequent generation, who experienced firsthand the very real threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction during the Cold War. However, in the not too distant future, my generation will take over the reigns of power without the benefit of those collective memories. So, it is critical that memorials like the one in Ueno Park are maintained. They provide the best mechanism through which to inspire future generations to learn more about the risks associated with nuclear war.

As my time at the Federation of American Scientists draws to an end, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge three people in my life who have served as my inspiration.

The first was my grandfather. A veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, he never shied away from talking about war. As a former B-52 bombardier, he often talked about the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He loved to debate on the merits of those attacks. From his perspective, they were justified by the fact that they saved hundreds of thousands of American lives and prevented a future nuclear war with the Soviet Union. When challenged, he liked to point out to his grandchildren that there was a very good chance that he himself would have been killed in the battle for the Japanese mainland – thereby eliminating his children’s and grandchildren’s prospect for life. Yet, he often struggled with the moral basis of those attacks. So, we often debated the merits of nuclear war driving down the road in his pickup truck. In retrospect, one of the most important gifts that my grandfather ever gave me was his memory of war. Without it, I would not have appreciated its true nature from my textbooks on strategic studies. Nor would I have been prepared to deal with my own experiences as part of the War on Terrorism.

The second was my father. A businessman of great character, one of his favorite sayings was, “They can take everything away from you except your education.” He lived by this mantra and ensured that his children were provided a level of education that far exceeded our economic status. This included coursework in ethics from an early age. Unfortunately, such training is largely absent in middle and high school education in the United States today. Being forced to confront the classical debates on morality as an adolescent radically shaped my worldview. It also ensured that my views on international politics, including on war, were grounded in ethical positions. Whereas my grandfather had stressed the practical need to always win wars, my education suggested that how one wins is equally important. Yet, when I went off to university, I found that my undergraduate education in International Relations failed to build on this point. Ethics and morality were largely absent from the subject as presented by my professors. Had it not been for the early education provided by my father, I would have graduated from university with a very narrow understanding of international politics grounded solely in international and domestic law. And, in my case, that would have meant that I would have gone to work at the Pentagon with a worldview that failed to account for ethics, morality, and philosophy in the conduct of war.

The third was my professor at SAIS. Professor David M. Lampton was one of the greatest teachers that I have ever come across in higher education. His lectures inspired his students to care deeply about East Asian regional security. By forcing us to confront contemporary issues like the North Korean Ballistic Missile Tests, he prepared us to make immediate policy relevant contributions to the international security discourse. Perhaps even more importantly, he always took a personal interest in our success. Unlike many other professors in foreign policy graduate programs, he was a teacher first and a policy expert second. Long after graduation, he would still support his students’ career ambitions and remained in touch with many. In my case, Professor Lampton inspired me to pursue my own PhD. He motivated me to get involved in foreign policy exchanges on East Asian security. And, he always provided a sounding board for new ideas. In short, he exemplified excellence in teaching through his actions and intentions. For this, I am very grateful.

Unfortunately, not everyone has such inspirations in their life. They may not have had a chance to meet a victim of a nuclear bombing or someone who has participated in a nuclear war. They might not have been provided an education that exposed them to ethics or prepared them to be a subject matter expert on international security. For these reasons, we must do more to preserve the memories of those who have survived nuclear attacks. We must also strengthen our education programs to teach future generations about the full risks associated with nuclear war. If we fail to do so, we cannot hope that future generations will appreciate the consequences of nuclear war to the same visceral extent as their predecessors. And, as a consequence, we cannot expect them to make the best policy decisions with respect to international peace and security.

Of course, it is my hope that this world will never experience another nuclear attack. But, I must admit that I find that to be wishful thinking. As we saw in Syria, the temptation to use whatever capabilities are at your disposal to win a conflict means the ever-present possibility of a nuclear confrontation. That is why I believe our only hope is global disarmament. I say this as a realist not as an idealist. And, I believe this goal is achievable. Yet, as Dwight D. Eisenhower famously cautioned in his 1955 Geneva Speech, “The quest for peace is the statesman’s most exacting duty. Security of the nation entrusted to his care is his greatest responsibility. Practical progress to lasting peace is his fondest hope. Yet in pursuit of his hope he must not betray the trust placed in him as guardian of the people’s security. A sound peace — with security, justice, well-being, and freedom for the people of the world — can be achieved, but only by patiently and thoughtfully following a hard and sure and tested road.” I do not believe that we will ever rid the world of war. But, we can eliminate the possibility that any one actor can unilaterally bring an end to our planet’s existence. If we are to achieve this goal, we must remain patient, vigilant, and committed to the objective of disarmament. And, we must always employ use of force while respecting ethical and social needs.

Michael Edward Walsh is the President of the Emerging Science and Technology Policy Centre. He is also the President of Plan G Consulting. Since 2012, he has served as an Adjunct Fellow for Emerging Technologies and High-end Threats at the Federation of American Scientists. He can be followed on Twitter at @aseanreporting.

Moral Rights in International Political Discourse on Global Ethics

Yesterday, I was pleased to find in my inbox a response to my recent blog post on global citizenship by His Excellency Alvaro Cedeno Molinari, who serves as the Ambassador of Costa Rica to Japan. His narrative reply elaborates on his thoughts on global citizenship as originally presented to the Junior Chamber International Tokyo a few weeks ago.

In his response, Molinari appears to argue for a conceptualization of morality best suited to natural law (lex naturalis). By this, I mean that he appears to conceptualize certain global ethics as natural rights for all humanity. I say this because he argues that there exists an ontologically objective “moral right” for all humans to live in a world that respects nature. He maintains this to be the case even if the positive laws governing inter-state and intra-state behavior fail to construct such rights in the absence of global consensus on their necessity. And, he appears to argue for epistemological objectivity through an appeal to rationalism when he takes the methodological approach of “restating the obvious” and outlining moral truths.

In Molinari’s argument, one therefore finds a natural affinity to classical natural law theory grounded in moral realism. Yet, at the same time, one also finds a strong sense of moral idealism in his response. This is evident in his reference to Einstein’s quote, “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

So, how does one reconcile notions of moral rights with a world where intra-state and inter-state relations are governed almost exclusively by international and domestic conventions (ex. laws)?

To begin with, it is important to point out that aspects of Molinari’s argument are not mutually exclusive of a social constructivist interpretation of morality. If we engage our imaginations as Molinari suggests, we can imagine ideal worlds. Each of these ideal worlds will be subjective. By this, I mean that they will represent each individual’s world as viewed through that individual’s mental states. However, these subjective worlds may in fact share common features. And, these common features may hinge on certain shared imagined rights and obligations governing human behavior.

The crux of socially constructing new moral rights and obligations therefore hinges on our ability to collectively agree on shared features. These shared features represent the lowest common denominator (LCD) of what we consider to be our shared conceptualization of “morality.” It is through such shared features that we can socially construct “moral rights” through positive law (jus positum). But, if we don’t explore these imagined worlds and determine our own subjective moral rights and obligations, we cannot hope to collectively define a set of common features upon which to base new laws and conventions since the ideal worlds upon which they are based are not experienced as part of every day life.

Of course, moral rights and obligations need not be based on a social constructivist theoretical approach. There are a wide variety of alternatives upon which to conceptualize such rights in both objective (ex. moral realism) and subjective terms (ex. ethical subjectivism). And, this takes us back to my earlier comments on the apparent affinity between Molinari’s arguments and the appeal of moral realism and the natural law of morality.

If one contends that such moral rights and obligations exist absent formal and/or informal conventions (i.e. international laws; international conventions, etc.), then one of the most common philosophical arguments held is the claim that they just exist out there in reality and we can come to know what they are through our sensory experiences or through reason. In this sense, moral rights and obligations are held to be natural. It is not explicit whether or not Molinari endorses this reading, but many others have in the past. And, at least from my reading of Molinari, it would appear that he is attracted to similar philosophical predispositions.

In any event, I found the Ambassador’s response to be quite valuable so I would encourage others to read it over as well. Perhaps you will arrive at different conclusions. But, either way, I believe that it is important for each of us to consider Molinari’s claim that there are certain objective moral rights and obligations when we consider the emerging concept of “global citizenship.” Whether you agree with Molinari’s argument will depend upon your own philosophical commitments. However, if you maintain that such moral rights and obligations are in fact natural rights and obligations that exist out there beyond humankind, then you would place yourself in opposition to those who argue that these written declarations provide the sole basis for the existence of such moral rights and obligations in the social world. Yet, at the same time, you would in turn possess a theoretical basis for endorsing the notion that such moral rights and obligations can exist absent their constitution through formal and/or informal conventions, which is a central tenet of Molinari’s conceptualization of global citizenship.

Michael Edward Walsh is an Adjunct Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. He is also the President of the Emerging Science and Technology Policy Centre and a Visiting Scholar at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @aseanreporting.

Global Citizenship in International Political Discourse

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by His Excellency Alvaro Molinari, the Ambassador of Costa Rica to Japan, on the concept of “Global Citizenship and the Creation of Shared Value.”

Speaking to the International Committee of Junior Chamber International (JCI) Tokyo, Molinari argued that the recently awarded Olympic Games provides the people of Japan with a unique opportunity to be a global thought leader on environmental sustainability. Citing a number of Japanese technological innovations, Molinari challenged the young Japanese business leaders in attendance to push themselves to show the world “what you have done, how you have done it, and how it can be done in other countries.” He held that such an effort would not only pay economic dividends but also enhance the country’s long-term political influence within the international community.

If Japan was to pursue such an agenda, Molinari suggested that the country embrace the concept of “global citizenship.” He defined this as a culture of “different leadership styles, cultural sensitivities, capacities for team building, cross-cultural communications regardless of language, negotiation skills, and a sense of global ethics.”

As an International Relations theorist, I found Molinari’s appeal to “global citizenship” to be an interesting point for conceptual inquiry. For, it would appear that both “global citizenship” and “global ethics” remain conceptually weak; making it difficult to operationalize either as a guide for human behavior.

Let’s take “global ethics” as an example. “Is there a collectively accepted set of ethical commitments that count as [global ethics] across the member states of the international community?” While there are certain moral rights and obligations codified in international laws and conventions which can be said to represent ethical commitments, there also remains significant divergence in their interpretation. For example, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council regularly disagree on the most fundamental principle of the United Nations Charter, “When, if ever, is it permissible for one state to violate the territorial integrity of another?” And, these debates often extend beyond the legal into the ethical (ex. Right to Protect principle).

The question then is “What are global ethics?” If the members of the United Nations do not currently agree on the answer to this question, including what rights/obligations entail from “global ethics,” it is difficult to understand what exactly an appeal to “global citizenship” means when employed in international political discourse. To have any real force, both “global citizenship” and “global ethics” will need to evolve into strong concepts with collectively agreed upon meaning in specific contexts. Right now, that simply is not the case. And, as a consequence, appeals to global citizenship remain purely idealist in outlook and subjective in nature.

Michael Edward Walsh is an Adjunct Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. You can follow him @aseanreporting.

An Expat’s Perspective on Fukushima in Tokyo

So, what’s it like living roughly 260 km from a disabled nuclear power plant? That’s the question I often get from family and friends back home in the States. They are often surprised when I respond that it’s not much different than when I was in Tokyo before the disaster. To quote the British term, people just seem to carry on.

But, that’s not entirely true. Yesterday was the Great East Japan Earthquake anniversary. And, it was different. My Japanese colleagues specifically asked me what Americans thought about the Fukushima nuclear accident. That was a first. And, when I attended a talk on US-Japan Relations, I watched a former Japanese ambassador struggle to find his words in addressing the disaster. It says something when a seasoned diplomat appears visibly shaken.

Yet, the Fukushima nuclear crisis is not a cloud hanging over people’s routine lives here in Tokyo. Gone are the days when you saw Geiger Counters outside the immediate vicinity of the disaster. At this point, it is rare to even hear the disaster brought up in ordinary conversation. As one Japanese colleague told me, “We leave it up to the government now. We trust them. There’s not much any of us can do about it anyway.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that people don’t care about what is happening in Fukushima – they clearly do. It’s more that Fukushima is not something that average Japanese people regularly confront in their daily lives. As a result, Fukushima is somewhere else. It’s not in Tokyo; it’s not in Chiba; it’s not in Takasaki. It’s far away in Okuma, Futaba District, Fukushima. It has moved from the foreground to the background. Fukushima is there and people are somewhat aware of it. But, it’s not headline news – at least on most days. So, aside from the occasional protest, it’s not a dominant issue living in Tokyo. At least that has been my experience in the few months that I have been here.

Michael Edward Walsh is an Adjunct Fellow for Emerging Technologies. He currently lives in the western suburbs of Tokyo, where he is conducting academic research on the social construction of Japanese security laws. The views expressed are his own. They are not intended to be interpreted as objective research findings but rather as an on-the-ground first hand perspective.

Japan’s Role in Asia’s Nuclear Security

In a new article published by the Wilson Center, Japan Fellow Hideshi Futori examines Japan’s role in the development of nuclear energy. Japan has the potential to serve as a role model for the safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy with close ties to the U.S. nuclear sector and the recent growth of nuclear power in Asia.

Japan needs efficient, reliable and safe reactors in a region where the demand for nuclear power is growing. Post- Fukushima, there is strong public opposition to nuclear power and Japanese political leaders have yet to make a clear decision on global nuclear energy development. Other factors that play a factor in Japan’s decision are China’s nuclear energy needs and security and Japan’s cooperation with the United States on the development of new nuclear products for civilian use.

Read the article here. 

The XYCs of Disasters

As those who follow my work might know, my academic research outside of the Federation of American Scientists examines conceptual issues in security studies. I am specifically interested in how social groups like states come to socially construct terms like “natural disaster” as security issues. In fact, my doctoral research attempts to illustrate the process by which these institutional facts are constructed in the specific contexts of Post-Cold War Germany and Japan. Unfortunately, such theoretical exercises can appear boring to those in the policymaker community who are far more interested in these terms’ application in practice. That said, I would argue that if we don’t understand the process by which security issues are socially constructed, then we can’t hope to understand how and why these terms carry so much weight in the policymaking process. So, on that note, I wanted to take a brief moment to pose the question, “What is a disaster?”

In my forthcoming journal article entitled “Disasters as Institutional Facts,” I seek to lay out a John R. Searle inspired theoretical approach for understanding how the term “disaster” is socially constructed across varying contexts. I will attempt to summarize its key points here as my response to the question. To understand “What is a disaster?,” I argue that we must first understand what counts as a disaster. In the international community, there remains no collective agreement between states on what the X or the C are in [X counts as a “Disaster” in Context C]. In the words of the International Law Commission, disasters are not “a term of art and, as such, lack() one single accepted definition.” In the absence of a collectively agreed upon international definition, we must instead look to the domestic legislation of the individual member states for their own definitions. This means exploring the procedures by which disasters come to be validly declared in each country. Typically, this entails looking at bureaucratic and/or political processes in the absence of written laws or policies that explicitly define what constitutes a disaster.

However, I argue in my piece that merely understanding the X in the [X counts as a Disaster] for a specific country is not enough. A complete picture of disasters requires also understanding which actors (S) are provided which powers (A) in the event of their occurrence. Theoretically, we find this expressed as the S, A, and C in Searle’s function: “We accept (S has the power (S does A)) in [Context C],” where C is the specific country of interest. Identifying the full set of S-A relationships is not an easy task for complex social issues like disasters. Typically, there are multiple levels of S, as one level of S usually possess the power to delegate powers to another level of S (ex. head of state delegating administrative powers to cabinet officials). To understand the concept of “disaster” within a specific context (say Japan), we must therefore account not only for the X but also the full set of deontic powers, including: 1) Actor-Powers (S-A); 2) Power Delegation Practices (S-A-S). This may require some level of abstraction as it may be difficult to account for all the actors involved in the response, especially in an event like the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake or the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami.

Some might counter that this account is a bit complicated. I mean, isn’t it clear to everyone that the Great East Japan Earthquake was a disaster? And, isn’t it clear that the Japanese Prime Minister possessed a commonsense set of powers to respond to the disaster? From that perspective, one might argue that 3/11 serves as a paradigm case. And, there would probably be few who would disagree. But, as many theorists have pointed out, an appeal to a paradigm case is not an explanatory move but merely a descriptive one. And, it is quite clear that the powers that Japanese Prime Minister possessed in responding to 3/11 differed from the powers that many other heads of state would have possessed in the same disaster (i.e. context specific). For those reasons, we in the policy community need to have a theoretical foundation upon which to account for the “why in the what.” Herein, I have attempted to provide a basic explanation of that “why in the what” as derived from institutional fact theory. While that theory has its share of critics, I believe that it nevertheless provides a compelling theoretical basis for understanding how social issues such as “natural disasters” are socially constructed into policy issues. If you agree, then the conceptual ABCs of Searle’s X, Y, C, S, and A are quite central to understanding “What is a disaster?”

Michael Edward Walsh is a PhD Student at SOAS, University of London. He currently serves as a Visiting Researcher at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, an international PhD affiliate of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, and an Academic Guest of Universität der Bundeswehr München. This post is derived from his doctoral research as presented in his forthcoming journal article entitled, “Disasters as Institutional Facts.” Original post here.

Remembering 3/11

Today marks the three year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake (東日本大震災). The most powerful recorded earthquake ever to hit Japan, it generated a massive tsunami with waves reaching almost 40 meters in height. In the end, the disaster claimed the lives of at least 15,884 people, including Americans Taylor Anderson and Monty Dickson. It also led to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, which remains unresolved to this day. While it is important to move forward from the disaster, Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki (Ret.) reminded those attending last night’s “Japan-US Relations: Now and In the Future” talk at Temple University Japan that we must not forget 3/11. I would agree. So, when we read over all of the other Japan-related issues dominating headlines today, perhaps each of us in the American policy community should take a step back, just for a moment, and remember the 3/11 victims and their families. Most of us will agree that Japan’s relations with the United States, its current account deficit, its plutonium stockpiles, and its ongoing historical issues with its neighbors are matters of great importance for international security. That’s why those issues are in the headlines today. But, we must make sure that we don’t look past the importance of this date in history in the process of attending to current affairs.