Opinion: Concerns over revision to the Atomic Energy Basic Act

by Yumi Kanazaki, Editorial Writer

On July 29, a public hearing organized by the central government will be held in Hiroshima to discuss the future of Japan’s energy and environmental policy. At the heart of the discussion will be the subject of nuclear energy, specifically the proportion of nuclear energy to be used among all energy sources. Three options have been proposed by an expert panel of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry: zero (the complete elimination of nuclear energy as an energy source), 15 percent, or 20-25 percent.

A website run by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry contains the minutes of the meetings held by this panel. As I went through the pages, I came across comments that I found deeply troubling. One member said, “In the nuclear age, it is vital, internationally, to maintain a virtual deterrence capability by possessing nuclear technology itself.”

Another member revealed in the minutes that “One former senior U.S. official has said that he attempts to sway China and North Korea by telling them that unless North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons program, Japan will go nuclear.” The member added, “For now, I am against possessing nuclear weapons. However, categorically renouncing this option would lead to North Korea advancing toward its goal of becoming a nuclear armed state.”

Such comments suggest that the discussions on the use of nuclear energy in the future have incorporated the connection between nuclear energy technology and nuclear arms. At the same time, the comments include no lessons drawn from the atomic bombings, in which nuclear weapons killed so many people indiscriminately. They may be remarks offered freely by experts outside the government, but I cannot help feeling that this is a matter of grave concern.

All the more, because of this, we must not overlook last month’s revision to the Atomic Energy Basic Act. The law which stipulates the principle of limiting the use of atomic energy for strictly peaceful purposes has been amended. The addition to the clause states that Japan’s nuclear energy should also “contribute to national security.” The law for the establishment of a nuclear regulatory commission was passed in the current Diet session and the appendix which states the revision of the Atomic Energy Basic Act was inserted. This means that the Japanese “constitution” regarding the use of nuclear energy was automatically rewritten by the appendix of the new law.

“National security” connotes “national defense by the means of military force.” The revision could invite doubts over Japan’s intentions with regard to possessing nuclear weapons. Media overseas have reported that the revision can be interpreted as Japan taking a step toward building its own nuclear arsenal. The phrase also prompts concern that restricting the disclosure of information about nuclear activity would be justified as “national security needs.”

Originally, the phrase had been included in the draft of a bill promoted by the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito. After changes to the bill were made in consultation with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, the wording was retained in the legislation proposed at the Lower House. The law was then enacted, sailing through the Upper House in only five days.

Some legislators have expressed opposition to the law, stating, “The three parties submitted the bill at the last moment to avoid a deeper national discussion over the issue.” If this is true, lawmakers must review the proceedings involving the law’s revision and then move to make another revision to the Atomic Energy Basic Act at the next Diet session. To bolster this effort, public opinion on the issue is needed.

Seeking to clarify its stance, the Japanese government said: “The wording was added from the point of view of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism.” The government stresses that there is no change in the basic policy involving the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The Upper House, too, sought to clear up such doubts by passing an additional resolution which declared: “The wording is not intended to overturn the three nonnuclear principles and nuclear nonproliferation.”

Nevertheless, concerns over the matter cannot be put to rest by framing them as “needless.”

Since the 1960s, research on the option of developing a nuclear deterrent has been carried out by the Japanese government in a secretive fashion. The studies all came to the same conclusion: “Staying under the U.S. nuclear umbrella would better meet our interests for the time being.” But this is inextricably linked to the idea that Japan should retain its own nuclear capability in the event that the U.S. nuclear umbrella proves unreliable. The minutes from the panel’s meetings illustrate that this way of thinking continues to the present day.

The Japanese government’s explanations involving “national security” are far from convincing.

The Aerospace Basic Act enacted in 2008 also stipulates that “the government is responsible for promoting measures that contribute to national security.” This was a significant development in that a defense objective was added to the use of space. Earlier this year, the law concerning the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was revised to pave the way for further research in the area of defense. While the issues of Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy and the resumption of operations of the nuclear power plants draw attention, the government’s important decisions regarding nuclear policy have been made without exposure to public attention and criticism. The revision of the Atomic Energy Act is not the only concern. With regard to the subjects of discussion at the public hearings, the government removed its policy on the nuclear fuel cycle from the agenda. The opportunity to discuss whether or not Japan should continue to fabricate plutonium that could be used for nuclear weapons was forestalled.

Those in the A-bombed city of Hiroshima, including the city’s media outlets, are responsible for raising and engaging with the critical issues involving Japan’s nuclear policy. This is the role we all must play.

(Originally published on July 26, 2012)