Nuclear Debates in Asia on Center Stage at Conference

Nuclear Debates in Asia on Center Stage at Conference

2013 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference (Source: Carnegie/Kaveh Sardari)

On April 8-9, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted its biennial Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington, DC. The gathering convened government officials, academics, think tank experts, and private citizens to engage in discussions on nuclear energy, nuclear weapon, and nonproliferation issues around the globe. The Rising Powers Initiative’s Nuclear Debates in Asia project was there to see many of the project’s countries and issues prominently discussed at the event, including nuclear debates in China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

In this blog post, we highlight the major exchanges related to the Nuclear Debates in Asia project:

  • China’s challenge to pursue ambitious nuclear energy goals alongside regulatory oversight
  • How China defends a limited role for nuclear weapons in its defense strategy
  • Indian perspectives on the nonproliferation regime and nuclear energy agendas of emerging powers
  • India’s expansive nuclear energy plans
  • Lessons learned for Japan and India after the accident at Fukushima nuclear plant
  • One viewpoint within South Korea on how to respond to its northern neighbor’s recent provocations
  • South Korea’s approach to balancing nonproliferation concerns with spent fuel challenges through reprocessing

Changchun nuclear plant (Source: AP)


China: Matching Nuclear Energy Ambitions and Effective Regulatory Oversight

China’s ambitious plans for nuclear power expansion were discussed during a panel on the future of nuclear power around the globe. Mark Hibbs from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace pointed out that China’s nuclear regulator is increasingly bottle-necked and overwhelmed as they struggle to keep up with the country’s nuclear energy surge.

  • The high number of venders, future plant locations, and growing diversity of reactor designs are stretching China’s regulatory capabilities too thin.
  • Since Hibbs did not believe China would give up on nuclear power any time soon, he suggested that the central government move quickly to develop better oversight infrastructure by investing in more experienced and higher quality regulators.

M.V. Ramana, Princeton University, concurred with this assessment and added that China’s fragmented political decision making process and multiple competing interests have thus far resulted in multiple reactor designs being introduced into the country’s nuclear fleet.

  • International suppliers see China as a huge potential market for their exports so many venders want to get involved. This means multiple designs and a more complicated nuclear regulatory system.

Panel at 2013 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference (Source: Carnegie/Kaveh Sardari)

China: Maintaining and Proclaiming the Benefits of a “Small” Nuclear Arsenal

In a panel discussion on deterrence, disarmament, and nonproliferation in President Barack Obama’s second term, General Yao Yunzhu from the Academy of Military Science in China presented China’s views on the subject. Yao argued that because China possessed only a “small nuclear arsenal” and a pledge to not use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, her country should remain outside multilateral arms control talks for the time being.

  • When Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals come down to a number closer to China, she insisted that additional issues needed to be included in those possible talks, including missile defense, the role of nonstrategic weapons, and both deployed and non-deployed weapons.
  • As has China pledged to not engage in an arms race with the United States and Russia, Yao predicted that her country would not “sprint to parity” as U.S. and Russia reduce size of their arsenal.
  • She said that China remained wary of how advancing U.S. missile defense capabilities could harm China’s smaller nuclear arsenal. In the future, Yao reasoned, Beijing may need to recalculate its minimal deterrence strategy to adjust to these new U.S. missile defense systems.
  • She thought that China’s primary challenge is learning how to maintain its no-first use pledge and minimal deterrence strategy with the limitations of a small nuclear arsenal. She suggested that China has focused on three key elements: 1) survivability; 2) penetration capability; and 3) fostering uncertainty. China benefits from a “certain level of opaqueness” on the size of its nuclear force. Furthermore, she stressed that Beijing planners remained concerned that U.S. missile defense and advanced conventional weapons threatened China’s penetration capabilities and survivability.
  • Though Yao believed that U.S. extended deterrence through its nuclear umbrella for Japan and South Korea may discourage nuclear weapon ambitions for these allies, the nuclear umbrella’s presence in Asia may have encouraged the North Korea to build a nuclear arsenal in the first place. She felt that as long as the U.S. nuclear umbrella exists in the region, it would remain a hindrance to denuclearization.

In response to these claims, Alexi Arbatov, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, expressed his frustration with what he felt was a lack of transparency on the size and purpose of China’s nuclear arsenal.

  • Arbatov argued that merely saying that a nuclear arsenal is “small” was not helpful. He He said that China’s talk about force size or minimal deterrence strategies were “just rhetoric” until it can be supported by data.
  • He concluded that since China could rapid increase the size of its arsenal and capabilities, Beijing should be more active with current arms control efforts.

Panel at 2013 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference (Source: Carnegie/Kaveh Sardari)

India: Perspectives on the Nonproliferation Regime and Nuclear Energy

During a panel discussion on the nuclear agenda of “emerging powers” such as Brazil, India, and Turkey, the Indian ambassador to the United States, Nirupama Rao, said that India has long been interested in a step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament that is global and nondiscriminatory.

  • Rao stressed that because India has never engaged in illicit proliferation and has an “impeccable nonproliferation record,” it earned the recent Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver and its current access to the international nuclear fuel market.
  • She felt that India has met any reasonable criteria for entry into the NSG and that current discussions with the United States, France, and Russia have been very productive in gaining their acceptance of India’s membership in the group.
  • Though India prefers to avoid a collapse of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, Rao pointed out that New Dehli would never join the NPT as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State. Whether India could possibly join the treaty as a Nuclear Weapon State in the future was up to existing NPT Member States.

In terms of India’s nuclear energy future, Ambassador Rao said that nuclear energy remained an essential element of the country’s “energy basket” and that they would continue to improve the safety of their reactors.

India: Ambitious Nuclear Expansion Plans

During a panel discussion on the future of nuclear power around the globe, M.V. Ramana outlined India’s ambitious nuclear expansion plans. India has a goal of 450 gigawatts in the next forty years, a substantial increase over its current 4000 megawatt capacity.

  • Domestic opposition to India’s nuclear energy plans – especially populations near individual nuclear sites – is strong and based on perceived threats to their livelihoods such as fishing and farming communities. Ramana believed that the government’s current strategy of squashing protests will likely not succeed as the number and diversity of nuclear sites continue to grow.
  • Many private sector nuclear plant suppliers have expressed concern that in the event of an accident at a facility they built in India that they could be unfairly punished under existing Indian liability laws. Ramana concluded that these international vendors remained unconvinced that the government’s offer to resolve liability concerns through payment caps and legal reforms would protect the supplier. He argued that venders are quietly worried about possible accidents and that any cap on how much a nuclear company must pay out after an accident will not hold once the public starts putting pressure on their elected official.

Damaged No. 4 unit of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (Source: Kyodo/AP)

Japan and India: Lessons Learned for Nuclear Energy after Fukushima

During a panel discussion on lessons learned after the Fukushima nuclear accident, Kazuto Suzuki from Hokkaido University and one of the researchers for a major report on the accident found that Japan was simply not prepared.

  • He argued that a “myth of absolute safety” was prevalent within the Japanese public, government, and nuclear industry. This myth held that because nuclear power was a “necessary evil” to meet Japan’s growing energy demands, the local public needed to believe that nuclear power was absolutely safe with no risk of accident.
  • When stronger regulations clashed with this safety myth, they were not pursued. Rather, government regulators and the nuclear industry focused on investing in “good hardware” as a preventive method.
  • Kazuto Suzuki concluded that the driving forces behind nuclear power (e.g. lack of domestic energy resources, rising economic growth) were stronger than the push for increased safety, regulations, and caution.

M.V. Ramana provided the three major lessons he felt India took away from the Fukushima accident.

  • First, local opposition within India to nuclear power grew, especially in the south. Those in the public who were sitting on the fence no longer believed official government declarations on safety, preferring to listen more to the emerging anti-nuclear movement. Ramana did not believe that the government’s current pro-nuclear education campaigns will be sufficient to quell local populations on the nuclear power question.
  • Second, the Indian government still plans for rapid expansion in nuclear energy capacity by mid-century. India was one of the first nations to certify a new nuclear reactor site after the accident.
  • Third, government regulators have concluded that the Fukushima accident is not relevant to India. Through public statements and internal communications, nuclear regulators and government officials continue to believe that an accident with India’s nuclear fleet is a “one in infinity” chance. This attitude, he argued, often leads regulators to develop regulations but not enforce them when push comes to shove.

Finally, during a panel on managing nuclear power post-Fukushima, Tatsujiro Suzuki from Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency reminded the conference that the accident was not over. His government remained focused on getting displaced people back into their homes and on with their lives.

  • He felt that the biggest lesson for Japan was its “need to think the unthinkable” when it came to potential future nuclear accidents. Japan and any country using nuclear energy needed to plan for managing contingencies after an accident no matter the probability of occurring.

Assembly Member MJ Chung during 2013 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference (Source: Carnegie/Kaveh Sardari)

South Korea: One Viewpoint Calls for Expanded Nuclear Mission

During a lively morning keynote session, M.J. Chung, a Member of National Assembly of Republic of Korea, suggested that the threat from North Korea demanded a reconsideration of his country’s current Non-Nuclear Weapon State status. Since he felt that previous efforts to foster better relations with North Korea were massive failures, he provided a number of options that were hotly debated at the conference:

  1. Return U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea
  2. Nullify past agreements related to nuclear issues that restrict South Korean activities
  3. Reposition U.S.- South Korean military divisions to enhance security
  4. Consider having South Korea withdraw from the NPT
  5. Continue dialogue on nuclear issues with North Korea for now
  6. Encourage regime change – with China’s help – in North Korea

Chung felt that the U.S. nuclear umbrella would be insufficient to disarm North Korea. On the other hand, Chung believes that an indigenous South Korean nuclear arsenal may be just enough leverage to accomplish that goal.

  • He argued that re-stationing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea could prevent North Korea from starting a war.
  • In response to audience criticism that South Korea’s NPT withdrawal could harm the nonproliferation regime, Chung doubted the treaty’s effectiveness if it could not stop the North Korean nuclear program. If the NPT regime did not work then, Chung suggested that there would be little real consequence to South Korea following Pyongyang out of the treaty.
  • He predicted that his views on nuclear issues would gain traction in his country as the public continued to feel threatened by the north.
  • He concluded that denuclearization of the peninsula is the last step before Korean reunification.

Panel at 2013 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference (Source: Carnegie/Kaveh Sardari)

South Korea: Balancing Global Nonproliferation Concerns with Domestic Spent Fuel Challenges

During a panel discussion on the proliferation implications of new fuel cycle technologies, South Korea’s attempts to use a reprocessing method called “pyroprocessing” to help manage its spent fuel challenge was closely debated. Pyroprocessing is a spent fuel treatment process that separates plutonium from other more radioactive byproducts after nuclear fuel is burned in a nuclear reactor. Since reprocessing technologies can manufacture fuel for both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons, some critics have argued against Korea using this technology on proliferation grounds.

Soon-Heung Chang from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology defended pyroprocessing as a necessary tool to minimize the amount of radioactive waste to be left in the environment.

  • Chang characterized this need as a duty of government officials to future generations who must live with today’s nuclear fuel cycle decisions.
  • He recognized the need to balance spent fuel solutions with global nonproliferation considerations, though Chang argued that pyroprocessing is a proliferation resistant technology because it does not produce pure plutonium that can be more easily used in a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, he said the pyroprocessing would better serve IAEA safeguard efforts through on-site monitoring due to the technology’s unique containment system.

In response to this claim, the panel’s moderator, Jeffrey Lewis from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, maintained that pyroprocessing was too similar to traditional reprocessing techniques.

  • The panel cited a 2009 study by the U.S. national laboratories which “concluded that for state-level threats, the differences” in this approach was “not very significant and that a state bent on developing a nuclear weapon could “convert the facility to separate pure plutonium” within a few days to a few weeks.
  • Nancy Jo Nicholas from Los Alamos National Laboratory concluded that no fuel cycle technology was completely proliferation resistant and that countries should be cautious when bringing these technologies into operation.

For further information and analysis on these nuclear debates, follow the project on Twitter at @Westmyer or visit the project website and blog.