Regular readers know I love public policy, especially perverse effects.  One of my favorite perverse effects is what I call “the cookie” problem after the plight of a beleaguered friend.  Let’s say you’ve come thisclose to cheating on a spouse or partner — but you don’t. Then you tell your spouse or partner about your heroic restraint. You’re going to catch hell, not get credit.  As I said to my friend, “What?  Did you expect a cookie?”

Drawing attention to something unwelcome often overwhelms any credit you get for taking steps to address that problem.  Even if other people are objectively better off, you will only suffer for bringing it up.

Tokyo discovered this phenomenon, when it announced it was returning more than 300 kilograms of plutonium and other fissile material.

Participants at a Nuclear Security Summit are supposed to show up with house-gifts. In 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came with a good one: ”President Obama and Prime Minister Abe pledged to remove and dispose all highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium from the Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) in Japan.”  (Announcement|Fact Sheet)

Matt Bunn has a characteristically perfect explanation of the material at the Fast Critical Assembly and why it represented a security threat. IPFM has some nice background, including a DOE document on the FCA.

The United States had apparently sought the return of the material for some time, but MEXT (the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) was reluctant.  State Department cables released by Wikileaks suggest the United States was worried about security at the Toka-mura.  In 2007, the US asked about security and got this not very reassuring answer: “Responding to U.S. concerns about physical protection of nuclear facilities, MEXT explained that an assessment of the local threat level did not justify posting armed guards at the Tokai-Mura facility, and that the GOJ is constitutionally prevented from requiring background checks of nuclear workers, due to privacy considerations.”  So, I am glad that MEXT is coughing up the plutonium.

But that doesn’t mean that Japan’s neighbors were delighted.  No one is sending Shinzo Abe any cookies.

Most of Japan’s neighbors had never thought for a moment about the material at the FCA.  In a decade of traveling to Beijing, I never once heard anyone demand that Japan return the material at the FCA.  The facility wasn’t secret — it has a website — and Japan annually publishes its plutonium stockpile.  But no one cared — until Japan agreed to give it back.

News of the impending return started to leak in February, with a story in Kyodo News. When I visited Beijing for an IISS meeting on China’s nuclear weapons and energy policies, all I heard about was that damned plutonium.  Why is it still there?  People told me straight to my face that they’d been concerned about it for years.  Maybe I just missed it, but I don’t have a single record of anyone in China complaining about the Fast Critical Assembly before now.  But they were complaining now. A cynical person might conclude that some of my Chinese colleagues were attempting to make up for nearly fifty years of ignoring the issue by issuing all their complaints in one meeting.  (Mark Fitzpatrick has written an excellent summary of the tone of these exchanges. Go ahead and click over to it — this post will still be here when you get back.)

This is a very human tendency — something I saw recently in Japan, as well.  During the early 2000s, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi attempted to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens who had been abducted by North Korea. North Korea ultimately admitted to the abductions, providing information on their fates.  The Japanese public exploded in rage.  ”The Japanese people were driven much more by sorrow and anger over the deaths of the abductees than by happiness that some abductees were still alive,” Yoichi Funabashi wrote, explaining how public sentiment turned against North Korea once it admitted what everyone suspected.

A similar question may arise relating to Israel’s nuclear weapons program.  My colleague, Avner Cohen, has argued eloquently that refusing to acknowledge Israel’s status as a possessor of nuclear weapons is incompatible with Israeli democracy.  But I have this sneaking suspicion that were Israel to acknowledge having nuclear weapons, even while accepting disarmament obligations, Israel’s neighbors would be more, not less, angry.

Of course, Japan should have returned the plutonium — just as North Korea should make amends for the abductees and Israel should find a way to subject its nuclear weapons to democratic control.  Tokyo, Pyongyang and Jerusalem should do these things because they are the right thing to do.

But don’t expect a cookie.