Atomic Bonds: US and Japan Share History of Nuclear Collaboration


On August 6, 2010, John Roos became the first American Ambassador to Japan to attend the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony; the 65th anniversary of the day in World War II when the United States dropped the world’s first atom bomb on the city of Hiroshima, in an instant killing an estimated 80,000 and ushering in the atomic age. That despite this tragic event in history the United States and Japan would embrace “as friends almost immediately afterwards” has been described by Japan Times writer Michael Hoffman as “one of the world’s great miracles of international relations.”

Ambassador Roos’ presence at the ceremony served not only as a symbol of peace and reconciliation between the people of the United States and Japan, but the shared vision of the leaders of both countries of a world without nuclear weapons. That ideal was codified in a 2009 joint statement by President Barack Obama and then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama that expressed their “determination to take…practical steps on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.”

This year, however, while Deputy Chief of Mission Jim Zumwalt becomes the first US official to attend both the memorial ceremonies in Hiroshima on August 6 and in Nagasaki today, Japan finds itself embroiled in another nuclear crisis as a result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent national debate over the future of its domestic nuclear power industry. Although Japan has been understandably “anti-nuclear” in terms of defense issues, this has not been the case in the area of energy production. According to former US Deputy Secretary of Energy, William F. Martin, the US and Japan together account for 40% of the world’s total nuclear capacity. The development of nuclear power in Japan has been inexorably linked to the US-Japan relationship and has become a major area of bilateral scientific and technical exchange and cooperation.

Early on, Japan’s adoption of nuclear energy was largely influenced by US policy. In the early 1950s in an effort to improve America’s image abroad and garner support for the non-military side of atomic technology, US President Dwight Eisenhower launched the “Atoms for Peace” initiative. His administration reasoned that the adoption of nuclear energy in Japan, with the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in the world’s memory, would be a powerful symbol for the peaceful application of nuclear technology that would “lift all of us far above the recollection of the carnage of those cities.”

Moreover, the sharing of this technology was seen as a way to reverse the negative relations of the 1954 Fukuryu-Maru incident, wherein radioactive fallout from a hydrogen bomb test fell on a so-named Japanese fishing boat, sickening the crew and causing the “most severe strain” in bilateral relations since World War II. The American offer of technical cooperation and enriched uranium fuel to start a nuclear power program in Japan launched a protracted debate; Japanese businessmen and engineers supported the idea, while scientists and many victims of the bombings opposed. As a 1955 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted: “There is a feeling in Japan these days that… whenever America lifts an atom, Japan gets hurt.”

When an agreement was signed that year between the US and Japan to work together on the research and development (R&D) of nuclear technology, it was the result of both the practical energy needs of the resource-strapped island nation and an extensive public diplomacy effort on the part of the United States to redefine the atom as “dedicated to the arts of peace.” While Japan’s first nuclear power plant began operation in 1966 with a reactor imported from the United Kingdom, the rest of the country’s first generation of reactors came from US designs. By the 1970s the Japanese nuclear power industry used largely domestically produced technology but the US and Japan continued to cooperate on the supply of fuel and the development of new reactors for the next several decades. In 1986 the US and Japanese governments revised and renewed an agreement that established a comprehensive framework for peaceful nuclear cooperation and the secure transfer of materials and technology across borders.

Staff from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission tour the Tomari Nuclear Power Station in Hokkaido, Japan in 2007 as part of a trip to discuss cooperation on new reactor construction and regulatory oversight with the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization. Photo by: NRC

Within the past decade the two governments have established a new collaboration initiative to address energy security, and environmental issues through nuclear power, as well as speed up innovation through cooperation. In 2006 the US-Japan Joint Nuclear Energy Action Plan (JNEAP) was launched with the intention to “expand nuclear energy use and manage proliferation risks.” Since then experts from both governments’ atomic-related agencies and nuclear industries have met regularly and established eight working groups to collaborate on topics ranging from the R&D of next generation reactors to the safe use of nuclear power in third countries.

In March 2010, the JNEAP steering committee identified seismic safety of nuclear power plants as an additional area for collaboration. One year later when the earthquake disaster resulted in the non-going emergency at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, this existing working relationship between the US Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and Japan Atomic Energy Agency allowed the US to assist with the disaster response. Within days a team of 11 NRC staff arrived in Japan to provide technical support to the Japanese government, with 250 staff members supporting the efforts in Japan and at the US-based Emergency Operations Center on a rotating basis over the following weeks.

Today while both countries review and reflect on the pain and prosperity that nuclear technology has brought and make decisions on the future of their atomic energy policies, the unique ties of American and Japan’s atomic histories ensure that the safety and security of nuclear technology will remain an area where both can continue to work together.