TOKYO Feb 13Japan's nuclear power
advocates have pulled out all the stops since the Fukushima
crisis, even arguing that the only nation to suffer an atomic
attack needs to keep its ability to build its own nuclear
Once, merely the public suggestion that Japan should debate
ending its ban on such weaponry was enough to get a politician
fired. But worries about North Korea's nuclear ambitions and an
expanding Chinese military are eroding that taboo .
Last March's disaster at the Fukushima atomic plant, which
spewed radiation and forced mass evacuations, has already
prompted Japan to scrap a plan to boost nuclear power to over 50
percent of electricity demand by 2030 from 30 percent before the
But politicians, experts and officials are still arguing
over what role -- if any -- nuclear power should play in a new
energy mix programme to be unveiled in the summer.
Even the rationales for keeping atomic energy are proving
"There are people who say that one reason we need nuclear
power is in order to have the latent capability for nuclear
weapons, from the perspective of national defence," Tatsuo
Hatta, an economist who is on an expert panel discussing Japan's
future energy mix, told Reuters in a recent interview.
"I think that is one idea but if that is the case, we don't
need so many reactors. And the objective should be made clear,"
he said. "This is not something that should be debated by the
Japan has 54 nuclear reactors, all but three now off-line
mainly for safety checks. The rest are due to shut down soon
while the government tries to persuade a wary public that it is
safe to restart those that pass newly-imposed stress tests.
Shigeru Ishiba, a former defence minister from the now-
opposition Liberal Democratic Party, laid out the argument for a
latent nuclear deterrent in a magazine article late last year.
"If we had to start from basic research, it would take 5-10
years to create nuclear weapons, but since we have nuclear power
technology, it would be possible to create nuclear weapons in
the relatively short time of several months to a year," he said.
"And our country has globally leading-edge rocket
technology, so if we put these two together, we can achieve
effective nuclear weapons in a relatively short time."
PUBLIC ATOMIC ALLERGY
Japan's post-World War Two constitution prohibits going to
war and, if taken literally, bans the maintenance of a standing
army. But successive governments have interpreted the pacifist
Article Nine as allowing a military for self-defence.
Since 1957, the official interpretation has also held that
Article Nine is not an obstacle to developing nuclear arms even
though the concept has long been a political taboo.
"People used to be more reserved about saying it," said
Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University political science professor.
"Ishiba isn't saying that Japan should have nuclear weapons
but that having the potential is very important to stay in the
big leagues and if you don't want to be pushed around by China."
Suggestions Japan might someday use its civilian nuclear
technology and stockpile of plutonium -- now totalling about 45
tonnes at home and overseas -- to arm itself with atomic bombs
risk fanning concerns by an already suspicious Beijing.
Critics have questioned why Japan stays committed to
developing costly nuclear waste reprocessing facilities unless
it wants to be able to make atomic bombs should it so decide.
The idea that Japan should have its own nuclear arms,
however, is unlikely to gain traction with the majority of the
public, whose collective psyche remains scarred by memories of
the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final days
of World War Two, experts say.
"Japan is the only country that suffered from
nuclear weapons. It is a sort of shared understanding that we
should use nuclear power only for peaceful uses," said Masakazu
Toyoda, head of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan and a
member of the expert panel, who believes Japan needs atomic
As Toyoda's remark suggests, not all supporters of nuclear
power -- whose reasons range from the need for energy security
in a resource-poor land to a desire to lead in atomic power
safety technology, find the latent deterrent argument appealing.
"If Japan considers arming itself with nuclear weapons, then
it will find itself in the same situation as Iran and North
Korea," Jitsuro Terashima, chairman of the Japan Research
Institute and another member of the expert panel, told Reuters.
"Japan's isolation would quickly deepen."
(Additional reporting by Kentaro Hamada and Shinichi Saoshiro,
Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)