The US is currently importing tons of weapons-grade plutonium from Japan in a controversial move that is alarming local state governments and community activists alike. Opponents point out that the US is already facing a nuclear waste crisis, with several of its key sites straining at full capacity from decades of storage. Therefore, importing more highly radioactive material seems a reckless policy. What’s really going on?
Part of the rationale in Washington is that the disposal of foreign sources of the radioactive material plays to the official US posture of it supporting non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and thereby augmenting efforts for «world peace». That buys Washington important public-image kudos because in reality, contrary to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the US government is actually embarking on a $1 trillion upgrade of its entire nuclear arsenal over the next three decades. (See previous column.)
Another pressing consideration for Washington’s apparent display of chivalry in disposing the Japanese plutonium is that the ulterior agenda is not about assisting Tokyo with a waste problem, but rather it is about the US maintaining its hegemony as a nuclear-weapon superpower in the geo-strategically vital Asia-Pacific region.
Mull over this. What if America’s two main allies in Asia-Pacific, Japan and South Korea, were to develop their own nuclear weapons? Yes, it would be a highly controversial development, to be sure, from the viewpoint of China and North Korea, as well as of Russia. We can be sure, too, that the US would also be deeply displeased. For in that event, Washington would effectively lose its historic status as «protector» of Japan and South Korea, where it has stationed some 70,000 troops and numerous military installations ever since the end of the Second World War.
The prospect of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons is not as remote as it may seem. Some years back, in 2006, Japan’s then foreign minister Taro Aso sparked alarm when he announced that his country had the expertise and resources to build its own bombs.
And only last week, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe issued a Cabinet statement in which it was said that the state’s constitution does not forbid the possession of nuclear weapons, contrary to its pacifist provisions. Abe’s eyebrow-raising statement is consistent with increasing militarization of Japan under his government over several years.
Washington’s apprehension over the possibility of Japan or South Korea building their own nuclear defenses was revealed inadvertently by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump last month when, in outlining a range of foreign policy stances, he said that the Asian allies should shoulder more of the defense burden, including acquiring their own nuclear weapons. Trump probably didn’t realize the strategic sensitivity of what he was saying. The consternation he sparked in Washington circles was based not so much on a concern over proliferation, but more out of how such a development would undermine American pretensions of being in Asia-Pacific to «protect» its allies.
Keeping Japan and South Korea «free from nuclear weapons» is really about keeping America in Asia-Pacific as a military power.
President Barack Obama has trumpeted the removal of weapons-grade plutonium from Japan and its disposal on US territory as a goodwill gesture towards non-proliferation, and additionally as a security precaution against terror groups, like the Islamic State, hijacking the bomb-making material. The quantity currently being shipped to the US from Japan is reportedly enough to produce 50 warheads, or as many crude so-called «dirty bombs».
Obama made a point of these issues at a nuclear security summit held in Washington last month. The president asserted that his country’s intake of Japanese plutonium was evidence of its commitment to non-proliferation.
Both the US and Russia are obliged under a bilateral accord, the Plutonium Management and Disposal Agreement (first signed in 2000, renewed in 2010), to each destroy or permanently remove some 34 tons of weapons-grade fission material. As noted in an earlier column, the US has done very little towards meeting that goal, whereas Russia apparently has.
Japan possesses something like 50 tons of plutonium that it acquired over the Cold War decades from the US, Britain and France, and which is purportedly for research and civilian power applications.
By taking back Japan’s nuclear material supposedly for disposal, the US gains in two-fold ways. Washington appears as if it is fulfilling non-proliferation obligations, which, in turn, provides a convenient cover for its violation of the NPT by undergoing a massive trillion-dollar upgrade of its nuclear arsenal.
Secondly, the shipment of Japanese plutonium to the US ensures that the latter continues the role of military protector of its Asia-Pacific allies. The continued military presence of the US in this region is vital for its geopolitical hegemonic ambitions with regard to China and Russia.
The giveaway issue to the ulterior agenda is the simple fact that the US is in no physical position to take on the task of nuclear-waste management. All of its existing facilities, such as at Hanford, Washington, or Rocky Flats, Colorado, are beleaguered with environmental problems of leakage, contamination and public lawsuits.
The consignment of Japanese plutonium to the US is due to disembark next month at the Savannah River Site nuclear facility in South Carolina. But that site is likewise straining to manage its own stockpile of waste.
The fallback candidate site for disposal is the underground storage facility at Carlsbad in New Mexico. However, two problems at this site present a serious obstacle to Department of Energy’s plans to shift the plutonium from Savannah. The first is that the 2,000-feet-deep salt caverns in New Mexico were only ever meant for low-level nuclear waste. Local environmentalist campaigners and even former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who was also the Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration, have voiced anxiety that the New Mexico repository is being tasked with dangerous high-level plutonium that the site was never equipped to deal with.
A second problem is that the New Mexico site was closed down in February 2014 when a nuclear-waste drum exploded underground and released radioactivity to the atmosphere above ground. Some 22 workers were injured in that accident and the site has remained closed ever since pending an ongoing security and safety revamp. The cost so far has reportedly run to $500 million, but Ernest Moniz, the current Secretary of Energy, earlier this year said the site would be re-opened by the end of December 2016.
At a recent meeting of concerned citizens in Albuquerque, NM, fears were expressed that «unbearable pressure» is being forced on local communities for the reopening of the New Mexico waste repository in order for it to take in the Japanese plutonium that no other site in the US can possibly deal with.
One of the community activists, Randy Martin, in communication with this author raised the suspicious matter of a recent death at the New Mexico waste site. The deceased was a Quality Assurance employee of the operating Nuclear Waste Partnership at Carlsbad. Robert B. Staffel (62) was found dead at the site on December 27, 2015, according to local media reports. But strangely, to this date, there has never been a publicly pronounced cause of death for Staffel.
Activist Randy Martin says: «The question begs: was Mr Staffel aware of ongoing safety problems at the Carlsbad waste site? We know that since the accident in early 2014, the site has been plagued with ongoing safety issues with a faulty ventilation system and firefighting equipment. If Mr Staffel, as a quality control officer, had reservations about the suitability of the site to resume operations that would have placed him under tremendous pressure from those who want to get the site to take in plutonium for disposal.»
Local media at the time of the employee’s death reported police officials as saying that there was no foul play suspected. However, as local activists point out, why has no official death certificate been released for Staffel, as is standard legal practice in any death?
The bigger picture beckons. The US federal government appears to be in a hurry to take in Japan’s plutonium stockpiles. The noteworthy thing is that the US is in no logistical position to safely accommodate this self-promoted duty for «world peace». If the US cannot evidently fulfill this task, then there is obviously another unspoken line of official reasoning.
Commandeering Japan’s plutonium is giving the US much-needed political cover for its de facto violation of the NPT through its massive rearmament program. Furthermore, depriving Japan of any future move to build its own nuclear defenses also maintains US hegemonic ambitions in Asia-Pacific as the nuclear powered «protector» of its allies.
Ultimately, it is the people of the US who are paying a heavy price for this geopolitical calculation. The US nuclear-waste crisis stems from its decades-long hegemonic ambitions. And that crisis is set to only worsen in order to maintain those US hegemonic ambitions, perhaps in a way that bestows untold dangers on its own people and environment.
New Mexico is the rocky, tumbleweed desert state where 71 years ago Washington tested the first-ever atomic bomb on July 16, 1945. Citizen campaigners today reckon that as many as 40,000 citizens were affected by the fallout from that test explosion which was conducted amid secrecy at the time. To this day, none of the radioactively contaminated victims ever received government compensation for multiple illnesses, including cancers and birth defects.
Some 71 years on, Washington appears prepared to poison the people and the land once again for its own secret, unaccountable geopolitical calculations.