This week US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Hiroshima, where nearly 71 years ago the US dropped the first ever atomic weapon killing 140,000 people. It was the first visit by a senior American official to the Japanese city owing to immense sensitivity surrounding that notorious event.
However, the occasion this week was said to underscore US President Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapons free world, said Kerry’s State Department.
The Japanese government of Shinzo Abe also got some good public relations value out of Kerry’s landmark visit to the Hiroshima peace memorial. As Voice of America noted, the occasion «helps to soften its global image» as Abe’s government steps up its military posture in recent years.
Obama is due to go to Japan in May to attend a G7 summit. It is being mooted that he too may pay respects to Hiroshima victims of the US atomic bombing, which occurred on August 6, 1945.
By the time Obama arrives in Japan, a shipment of Japanese radioactive plutonium is due to land on the US east coast. The highly dangerous cargo of 331 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium reportedly left Japan on March 22 onboard an armed ship as part of an agreement with the US to act as a depository for the radioactive material. The cargo is reportedly sufficient material for the production 50 nuclear warheads.
The two-month seaborne transfer is a highly classified matter, the itinerary kept secret for security reasons. It is reportedly the first major transport of weapons-grade material from Japan since 1992. The plutonium is intended to be disembarked at a nuclear facility in Savannah, South Carolina.
The intake of plutonium from Japan by the US is supposedly part of a 2010 accord between the US and Russia which calls on both parties to begin disposal of highly enriched plutonium for the purpose of aiding weapons non-proliferation. Both sides are obligated to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. Notwithstanding, on the US side the commitment has been largely unfulfilled, according to Professor Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington DC.
Kuznick «estimates that on Obama’s watch little more than a ton of nuclear materials has been removed», reported the Guardian. Kuznick even went as far as accusing the American president of espousing the «height of hypocrisy» in light of his famous speech in Prague 2009 when he pledged to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Further anomaly is in the fact that the Obama administration has committed Washington to spend $1 trillion over the next three decades in upgrading the country’s entire nuclear arsenal. A central part of the task is to replace the plutonium cores in all warheads – of which the US has roughly 1,500, on parity with Russia’s stockpile.
Therefore, it is very hard to see how Washington is implementing «Obama’s vision» of a nuclear-weapons-free world. The opposite is more to the point.
At the end of last month, Obama hosted 50 world leaders in Washington for a nuclear security summit. It was the fourth such event under his nearly eight-year presidency. Just before the gathering, Obama wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post which headlined: «How we can make our vision of a world without nuclear weapons a reality».
Notably, Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped the conference in Washington. The Kremlin said that was because the US side did not consult beforehand with Russian counterparts on what the agenda of the summit would be.
In his op-ed piece, Obama appeared to re-write his «Prague vision» by saying now that the «central pillar» is «preventing terrorists from obtaining and using a nuclear weapon». The president went on to say: «We’ll review our progress, such as successfully ridding more than a dozen countries of highly enriched uranium and plutonium».
So Obama deftly shifts the focus from international disarmament by nuclear powers – and his own county’s tardiness in particular to implement the nearly 50-year-old Non-Proliferation Treaty – to one of «preventing terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons».
This is where the shipment of plutonium from Japan comes into good public relations effect. As noted above, the cargo left Japan about a week before Obama’s nuclear security summit was held in Washington. That shipment tends to bolster the narrative that the US is «ridding more than a dozen countries of highly enriched uranium and plutonium» – thus ostensibly contributing to non-proliferation.
Obama also plugged the P5+1 accord with Iran in the same self-serving vein. He wrote: «We’ve succeeded in uniting the international community against the spread of nuclear weapons, notably in Iran. A nuclear-armed Iran would have constituted an unacceptable threat to our national security and that of our allies and partners. It could have triggered a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and begun to unravel the global non-proliferation regime».
Again, the intended effect is that Nobel Laureate Obama is seen to be doing his bit for world peace and nuclear disarmament. But with a trillion-dollar upgrade of the US nuclear arsenal underway, as designated by Obama, it should be evident that the exact opposite is the case.
Japan has reportedly accumulated about 50 tons of plutonium over several decades, with supplies sent there from Britain, France and the US, supposedly for the purpose of research and use as reactor fuel. There are apparently security concerns that such nuclear material could be hijacked by terror groups. And so the US has presented itself as stepping up to the plate to receive this stockpile from Japan on to its territory for «safe disposal».
But the alleged disposal of weapons-grade plutonium in the US does not stand up to scrutiny. Waste facilities in the US for nuclear storage have reached critical capacity limits. Major sites at Hanford, Washington, Lawrence Livermore, California, Rocky Flats, Colorado, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, have been plagued for years with radioactive leakages. The main disposal facility at Savannah is straining at full capacity. South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley is threatening to sue the US Department of Energy in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit over delays in relieving the Savannah site from its toxic load.
Environmentalists in New Mexico state are alarmed that the federal government is now planning to shunt highly radioactive plutonium to an existing underground storage facility there as a contingency measure. The New Mexico site has been operating for 16 years and is the US’s only underground nuclear waste facility. However, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad is suitable solely for low-level nuclear waste.
It’s not only local environmentalists who are anxious. Former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson has expressed concerns that the New Mexico site is being recklessly lined up to take the nuclear waste load off the site in Savannah.
«This is not a good idea for a variety of reasons, but mainly that WIPP is not suitable to be a high-level waste dump and New Mexico has done its share of accepting nuclear waste», wrote Richardson in an op-ed for the Las Cruces Sun News.
The obvious conclusion is that the US is in no position to «safely dispose» of weapons-grade plutonium from Japan, or anywhere else for that matter, since it doesn’t even have storage capacity for its own Cold War legacy of nuclear waste.
Taking in Japanese nuclear waste is dangerously adding more environmental burden to US communities. Tragically, the population of New Mexico appears to be set for a precarious experiment in disposing highly toxic nuclear material that it is not equipped to deal with.
It was 71 years ago, on July 16, 1945, that the US first tested its atomic weapon in the desert of New Mexico at the Trinity explosion site. Three weeks later the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
History appears to be turning full circle as New Mexico is once again being used to expand US nuclear weapons – under the guise of «disposing» plutonium. But the real reason for the «disposal» is to give the US the international image of working towards non-proliferation, when in reality it is scaling up its own nuclear arsenal – in complete violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that was first signed all the way back in 1968. Nearly half a century on, the US is paving the way for extending its weapons of mass destruction, not eliminating them.
Kerry’s «historic» visit to Hiroshima this week thus seems to be part of a carefully choreographed and ultimately cynical public relations exercise by the US government. Solemn words for the victims of America’s nuclear holocaust and lofty visions of disarmament jar with Washington’s conduct of rearming itself to the teeth.