In a report issued in Washington, Greenpeace charged that the United States government had deceived Congress for seven years by illegally supplying Japan with secret nuclear technology to help it build a reprocessing plant to separate fuel from its plutonium breeder power reactors. Before Greenpeace researchers had finished their news conference, the Department of Energy put out its own statement.
Far from denying the charge, officials acknowledged that Greenpeace had raised a 'valid' question - which in public relations terms meant the charge was more or less correct. The department added that the deal with Japan would be reviewed immediately, and exports of the sensitive technology halted by letting the agreement expire at the end of this month.
The charge received widespread coverage, notably in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the conservative Washington Times - and so it should have. In essence, the US - or more precisely the Reagan administration - seems to have violated its own 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, which is the foundation of US policy to halt the spread of nuclear weapons elsewhere in the world.
In giving preferential treatment to Japan, the US established one nuclear rule for rich, industrialised countries and another for less developed nations. It is a double standard that should be unacceptable at a time of heightened concern, especially over North Korea's nuclear programme and the international smuggling of plutonium.
In the nuclear age there have been plenty of secret government-to-government deals that parliaments knew nothing about, of course. During the Cold War America slipped nuclear secrets under the table to Britain, the Soviet Union virtually carried a bomb across the border into China, and France traded key nuclear secrets with Israel in exchange for missile technology - all without any oversight from their elected parliaments.
But those transfers were expressly to do with national security. Deals involving declared peaceful uses of the atom - in nuclear power stations - have been pretty much in the open. Indeed, when Reagan officials negotiated the 1988 agreement between the US and Japan, they promised no nuclear secrets would be involved.
In hearings before the House of Representatives, a State Department official testified that the agreement with Japan 'meets all the requirements of US law'. The official was referring to the 1978 Act, which forbids the transfer of the so-called Sensitive Nuclear Technology (SNT). This is broadly defined as information not available to the public, but in the case of the Japan deal, it is quite specific in outlawing the transfer of technology important to the 'design, construction, fabrication, operation or maintenance of a . . . nuclear fuel reprocessing facility'.
Greenpeace says documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that several illegal shipments to Japan of advanced plutonium reprocessing technology and information have been made for the planned plant at the Tokai nuclear complex.
Japan insists that it has no plans to use the plutonium extracted from the proposed new plant for anything other than civilian power production. But the extracted plutonium would be sufficiently potent to be used in bombs, which is why the five countries with declared nuclear weapons - the US, Britain, France, Russia and China - have so far restricted transfer of the reprocessing technology. Before the Japan deal, the US had been especially severe on the issue of reprocessing. The Carter administration banned the technology in the US 17 years ago, arguing that it posed too great a proliferation risk. Britain and France reprocess fuel commercially, and Russia is seeking contracts.
Part of the Clinton administration's non-proliferation policy is to discourage the civil use of plutonium, and to phase out production of new weapons-grade fuel. With a deal inherited from the Reagan years, it had no option but to declare a halt to US assistance for the Japanese plant.
However, construction of the plant is due to start this month. The environmental lobby wants the US government to ask Japan to return all information and technology transferred illegally, or face nuclear sanctions of some kind from Washington. It is hard to see how such a threat would stop Japan, because it could surely develop the technology on its own.
What is required is heightened international pressure to persuade countries that there is quite enough plutonium in the world already, and that enlarging the stocks simply increases the risk of the spread of nuclear weapons. A good place to turn up the heat is the discussions this week in Geneva on the renewal of the international Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was first discussed in the mid Sixties. Two of the treaty's strongest backers today are the US and Japan.Reuse content