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Proliferation, Plutonium, and Power: The Carter Administration and Japan’s Search for a Plutonium Economy

Japan and the United States faced a serious rift in relations in the late 1970s over the future of civilian nuclear power. Japan hoped that the reprocessing of spent reactor fuel into plutonium would provide an abundant, domestically produced, and economical power source. The United States, especially under the Carter administration, saw an increase in the global stockpile of plutonium as a major proliferation threat. Japan had previously accommodated itself to secondary global status by adhering to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) largely due to the promise of unfettered access to the peaceful applications of nuclear technology. America's efforts on plutonium ran counter to these interests and provoked a sharp reaction. Japan’s diplomats and leaders used bilateral and multi-lateral means to advance its nuclear power interests and managed to achieve a great deal of success. At stake, though, was more than fuel, as issues of status, prestige, and hierarchy loomed large in these efforts.

Fintan Hoey, PhD is a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center and an Associate Professor of History at Franklin University Switzerland. He is the author of Satō, America, and the Cold War: US-Japanese Relations, 1964-1972 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and is currently working on a SNF-funded project on Japan’s nuclear power policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 


  • Fintan Hoey

    Public Policy Fellow
    Associate Professor of History, Franklin University, Switzerland