Tokyo soothes fears over its nuclear aims: Curb on plutonium production and publicity campaign to quell rumour about atomic bombs

JAPAN will slow down its production of plutonium and will also mount a publicity campaign to persuade the world that it has no ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, according to government officials.

The Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, is even expected to make a speech explictly rejecting the nuclear option for Japan when he travels to the United States this weekend. But, strangest of all, no one has seriously suggested that the country has any nuclear weapons - yet.

News reports said that the country's second fast-breeder reactor, which will produce plutonium, will not become operational until 2030, 20 years later than had originally been planned, amid signs that official enthusiasm for making and storing plutonium is waning. Japan has been widely criticised for sticking to a policy of generating electricity with plutonium, a highly toxic substance that is also the key ingredient in making atomic bombs.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry said Mr Hosokawa will deliver a speech to students at Georgetown University in Washington on Friday night which will attempt 'to quell a rumour spreading in the US and other countries' that Japan has a military nuclear programme.

It is ironic that as the world is focusing its fears of a nuclear holocaust on the repressive, closed and unco-operative Communist state of North Korea, the loudest denials of an ongoing nuclear weapons programme are coming from Tokyo, some 700 miles to the east.

Japan is scrupulous in submitting its nuclear plants to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The general public, many of whom still remember the nuclear devastation in 1945 of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are almost universally opposed to nuclear weapons.

And for the Japanese government the risks of alienating the US and antagonising neighbouring China would far outweigh any benefits to national prestige of acquiring the atomic bomb.

North Korea, by contrast, has resolutely blocked the IAEA from carrying out any inspections, cares not a jot for the opinion of its own public, and has already alienated the US, China and almost everyone else in the international community. Last week the Pyongyang government even delivered a veiled threat to use a nuclear device, saying that pressure from the United States could force North Korea into a reaction 'a hundred times stronger'.

So why has the nuclear controversy even become an issue in today's Japan, an economic superpower that for the past 50 years has lived under a pacifist constitution?

First, there is the perennial distrust of Japan by other Asian countries, a legacy of the invasion of Asia half a century ago that Tokyo euphemistically called the setting up of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Since then China, Korea and some South- east Asian countries have treated official Japanese government pronouncements with circumspection.

Second, there is Japan's indisputable technological expertise - shown no more clearly than last Friday, when it successfully launched the H- II rocket, which had been designed and built in Japan, into Earth orbit. Military analysts have pointed out that the H-II rocket could also function as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). And with the country's stockpile of plutonium - currently 1.6 tons - and its expertise in electronics and engineering, few doubt that Japan would take long to put together a nuclear weapon if it so decided.

Third, there is the steady heightening of military tensions in East Asia, coming both from North Korea's menacing attempts at nuclear blackmail, as well as the quieter but no less disquieting build-up of China's long-range military capability. This is taking place against a long-term trend by the US to reduce its forces in Asia.

If Japan were to be faced with the imminent prospect of attack or invasion by one of its neighbours, and was not confident of full-scale US protection, the three nuclear prohibitions enunicated 25 years ago - no construction, no acquisition and no use of nuclear weapons - could quickly be set aside.

(Photograph omitted)