The proliferation of nuclear weapons is the most serious concern facing the contemporary international nuclear order. A major source of concern in this regard is the growing number of fissile material stockpiles in various countries that could be used for making more nuclear weapons.
Recently, concerns have been raised pertaining to Japan’s fissile material stockpiles by Japan’s neighbors, governmental and nongovernmental nonproliferation advocates.
They note that Japan has enough reactor-grade plutonium and the technological capability to build nuclear weapons. Such claims are corroborated on the basis of current estimates which project the weapons equivalent material that Japan’s reprocessing plants can produce per year. When the Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Center at Rokkasho Plant in Japan starts operation at full capacity, it will be able to produce eight metric tons of plutonium annually. A plutonium nuclear warhead requires six and a half pound or roughly 3-5 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium and 5-7 Kilograms of reactor-grade plutonium. The calculations show that this reactor grade plutonium could be used to be make close to a 1000-1200 weapons, allowing for reprocessing loss, plant maintenance and capacity when not running optimally, and the weapon’s design. In addition to this, it is estimated that 11 metric tons of separated Plutonium in Japan and another 36 metric tons reprocessed in Britain and France, waiting to be returned to Japan — a total of 47 metric tons of fissionable material could facilitate the making of over 5000 nuclear warheads.
Such projections, however, serve only as scaremongering tactics creating misperceptions regarding Japan’s civil nuclear program. For Japan to make that huge a number of weapons, the associated costs of developing those weapons, delivery systems and their maintenance would have an immensely negative impact on its economy. Moreover, the Plutonium capacity sitting in Japan is always accounted against a probable weapons capacity irrespective of its good nonproliferation record and its strong commitment to the non-proliferation regime wherein it sticks to peaceful and scientific uses of nuclear fissile material that it imports from other states such US, UK and France. Japan’s commitment is manifested in the 2014 agreement to the removal of 331kg of weapons-grade plutonium from its territory to be shipped to the US post the Nuclear Security Summit.
The same international community, however, looks the other way regarding India’s production and accumulation of reactor grade plutonium. It appears as if India’s recent nuclear posturing and policies are not visible to the nuclear forum at large.
An appraisal of India’s nuclear stockpiles, according to IPFM, shows that India’s stockpile of nuclear fuel is estimated to include 3.2 ± 0.9 tons of HEU, 0.59 ±0 .18 tons of weapon-grade plutonium, and 5.5±0.4 tons of reactor-grade plutonium separated from unsafeguarded heavy-water power reactors, that includes 5.1±0.4 of material declared as strategic reserve and 0.4 tons of safeguarded plutonium. A study conducted by Dr. Mansoor Ahmed of the Harvard Belfer Center in United States marks India’s reactor grade plutonium stockpiles at 15 metric tons of reactor grade plutonium sitting outside safeguards. The Belfer Center calculations shows that this amount of reactor-grade plutonium could produce 1500-2000 nuclear warheads, whereas the IPFM estimates show that the current stockpiles can produce almost 500-700 nuclear warheads.
This is in addition to the weapon-grade plutonium India continues to produce. It operates a plutonium production reactor, Dhruva, and a uranium enrichment facility that are not subject to IAEA safeguards. It is amongst the eight nuclear reactors and fast breeder reactors (FBR) program that remain conveniently outside any safeguards. Thus, the duplicity of the norms is exposed here in propagating nonproliferation; as experts generally assume that India wouldn’t feel inclined to use this reactor grade Plutonium for weapon production. This is despite the fact that S.K Sikka, one of the scientists involved in the May 1998 tests had later claimed that one of the devices tests was based on reactor-grade plutonium. The evidence of reactor-grade plutonium’s utility in a weapon comes from the US department of Energy’s on record statement affirming that reactor grade plutonium can be used in nuclear warheads.
Moreover, the argument that the utility of that reactor-grade plutonium fuel in a nuclear warhead is not possible in India’s case is surprising, as India has all three components required to produce more nuclear weapons; capability, intent and financing. The recent debate pertaining to India’s possible shift from counter-value to counter-force attacks is an indicator that India seeks to use its nuclear weapons not just for deterrence but to intimidate its nuclear armed neighbors. This reactor grade plutonium is paving the way for India to produce more nuclear warheads. It also allows for India’s smooth sailing into MIRVing which in itself undermines deterrence stability in South Asia.
Whilst Japan can make nuclear weapons, it has remained true to its three non-nuclear principles i.e. Japan shall neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons, nor shall it permit their introduction into Japanese territory. Despite its reactor grade plutonium production and stockpiles, it has not shown any intent or interest in making nuclear weapons. On the other hand, India’s reactor grade plutonium is readily available for the production of more nuclear weapons as is visible in its nuclear posturing and nuclear programs. Moreover, India has recently completed its nuclear triad, which would require the production of more nuclear warheads and in effect churning out of more fissile material; naturally, the reactor grade plutonium available could be sourced out to meet this need. But even then, India’s reactor grade plutonium does not meet any criticism, however, Japan’s reactor grade plutonium is censured for its possible use in weapons.
Therefore, it can be seen that the dichotomy in application of non-proliferation norms is the single biggest challenge in their compliance and universality.
This article appeared in The Nation on January 17, 2018.