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Myth #3: Japan's Plutonium Program is a Purely Domestic Matter of No Relevance Outside Japan.

This cannot be not true in a situation in which Japan acquires a large stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium. As of the end of 1994, Japan's surplus plutonium---that is, plutonium above and beyond what can be promptly used in reactors---amounted to more than 11.5 metric tons.23 This stockpile will grow rapidly, in light of Monju's prolonged shutdown and the indefinite postponement of MOX loading for light- water reactors.

The present plutonium surplus---enough to build at least 1,500 Nagasaki-type nuclear bombs---poses a risk that extends beyond Japan. William Dircks, former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), emphasized in a speech to the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, "the excess of plutonium from civilian nuclear programs poses a major political and security problem worldwide."24 The Clinton Administration's nonproliferation policy states that the U.S. will "seek to eliminate where possible the accumulation of stockpiles of highly enriched uranium or plutonium . . . ," and "explore means to limit the stockpiling of plutonium from civil nuclear programs . . . "25 The surplus also violates Japan's stated policy of not stockpiling plutonium, a pledge offered to reassure other nations that Japan's intentions for its nuclear program are entirely peaceful.26

Japan's plutonium program creates grim prospects for regional instability. The two Koreas and China have expressed grave concerns about the security risks posed by Japanese plutonium.27 Complications also arise for non-proliferation diplomacy in the region, as "[i]t is politically difficult to persuade states like North Korea that involvement in the plutonium economy is illegitimate and inappropriate for them, but right and appropriate for their historic enemy, Japan."28

Another aspect of the plutonium program with repercussions far beyond Japan is the succession of shipments by sea of reprocessing's products---separated plutonium and vitrified high-level waste (VHLW)---from Europe to Japan. Worldwide controversy greeted both the first large plutonium shipment in late 1992 and the first waste shipment early last year. En-route nations were outraged that Japan not only failed to seek their approval and to arrange emergency procedures in advance of shipments through their waters, but did not even inform them of the shipping routes. Tensions ran so high that, at one point, Chile's navy threatened the use of force against the high-level waste shipment after the British transport vessel had entered Chilean waters without permission.

Professor Jon Van Dyke of the University of Hawaii Law School, in a detailed legal analysis prepared for our institute and presented to the International Maritime Organization, has documented that the rights of nations along shipping routes for hazardous cargoes are well grounded in international law, and include the right to prior notification and consultation. These rights even allow nations to refuse such shipments passage through their waters, if they feel this is necessary to protect their citizens.29

Last month, Prof. Van Dyke, Dr. Lyman and I participated in a special meeting of the IMO to review the present code on nuclear transports. The meeting closed with a declaration by 13 coastal states demanding stricter, mandatory controls on these transports.30 The declaration called for a "full code" to cover all corrective safety and reporting measures discussed at the meeting, and demanded a "binding instrument" to replace the IMO's current permissive, voluntary code. IMO Secretary General W.A. O'Neill said he was "sure that action would be taken by various elements of the IMO."

On the home front, Governor Morio Kimura, resisting strong pressure from Tokyo, courageously insisted that this first waste shipment not enter Aomori Prefecture until important questions relating to its ultimate disposition were resolved. The Governor prudently exercised his authority to protect the health and welfare of his constituents. It is encouraging that, both within Japan and abroad, citizens are insisting that they be provided adequate protection from the hazardous shipments of the international reprocessing industry.

Myth #4: Plutonium can be Effectively Safeguarded against Diversions or Thefts.

In fact, even the most modern plutonium fuel cycle facilities cannot be safeguarded to the extent that diversions of bomb-quantities of plutonium can be detected with high confidence. Even with the best measurement and accounting instruments available, there must be some margin of error because of unavoidable measurement uncertainties. As a result, in large, commercial- scale plutonium facilities, the allowable discrepencies between book and physical inventories amount to hundreds of kilograms of plutonium a year---equivalent to dozens of nuclear weapons--- leaving ample room for large diversions of atom bomb material.31 "Up to three percent of Japan's plutonium pile is 'unaccounted for' at any one time," according to a recent account in The Economist.32

A dramatic example of accountancy problems that add up to missing plutonium is the current situation at the Plutonium Fuel Processing Facility (PFPF), a small, pilot-scale MOX fuel fabrication plant in Tokai-mura where the fuel for the Joyo and Monju FBRs is manufactured. Within six years after the plant began operating in 1988, a discrepancy of 70 kilograms of plutonium had built up by 1994. PNC claimed this plutonium was merely "held up" in the plant, stuck to surfaces and inside machinery in the automated glove boxes. PNC had resisted a series of requests by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to clean out the plant and provide a physical inventory of the held-up plutonium.

It wasn't until 1994 that PNC finally relented and agreed to the clean-out operation, but only after the Nuclear Control Institute had learned of the hold-up problem and made it public.33 Now, after two years of dismantling the PFPF glove boxes piece-by-piece---an operation costing PNC $100 million---only about three- quarters of this plutonium has been accounted for,34 and STA cannot assure that the plutonium hold-up will ever be eliminated---only that it will be reduced "as much as is technically possible."35

It is crucially important that PNC be required to make public the final results of the clean-out audit---including the detailed measurements used to establish the physical inventory and the amount of any discrepancy between the physical inventory and the book inventory that remains. PNC should not be allowed to use the IAEA's "safeguards confidentiality" as a curtain to hide the results. The Japanese Government is free to voluntarily make the results public in the interest of demonstrating the effectiveness (or acknowledging the limitations) of safeguards, and that is precisely what the Japanese people and their elected prefectural and national representatives should demand.

PFPF illustrates an emerging global danger. In a world in which nuclear terrorism is, according to former U.S. nuclear weapon designer Ted Taylor, "a realistic possibility and one which becomes more likely as time goes by,"36 any uncertainty about the location of bomb quantities of plutonium is unacceptable anywhere. The question is not simply whether the IAEA could ever detect a nation diverting plutonium from a peaceful program, but whether the national operator of such a program could detect losses perpetrated by plant personnel in conjunction with an outside group or state.

Indeed, given the fact that PNC officials have gone to such great lengths to cover up the severity of the Monju reactor accident and to misrepresent the weapons-utility and the toxicity of plutonium in the "Pluto Boy" video, it is fair to question what might they do upon discovering a major loss of plutonium. In the wake of the Aum Shinrikyo revelations, such a concern cannot be dismissed as fanciful. Given the amounts of plutonium in PNC's custody, reforming PNC so that future cover-ups and deceptions will not be possible should be regarded as a matter of the highest national-security priority.

Given the measurement uncertainties and other problems in monitoring a material produced by the ton but used by the pound to make nuclear weapons, it is essential to establish whether international or national safeguards measures can be relied upon to promptly detect and report skillful diversions or outright thefts of plutonium. The amounts of plutonium unaccounted for will become many times greater when Japan begins operating much larger facilities, including the commercial-scale reprocessing plant in Rokkasho-mura. The adverse impact that unavoidable plutonium measurement uncertainties can have on regional security and on international efforts to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons is a compelling reason for Japan to decide against proceeding with its commercial plutonium program.

Myth #5: Reprocessing is the Only Way to Manage Japan's Nuclear Waste Problem.

Reprocessing advocates contend that Japan can only manage its nuclear waste problem if it reprocesses its spent fuel. In fact, reprocessing can make waste management much more difficult. Though reprocessing reduces somewhat the volume of high-level waste, the total amount of heat generated by that waste in the repository would remain the same.37 Therefore, Japan would not be able to reduce the size of any geological repository planned for the final disposal of such waste.

Reprocessing proponents also ignore the fact that reprocessing generates enormous amounts of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste (such as contaminated tools and workers' clothing)---dozens if not hundreds of times more than direct disposal of spent fuel. Even if such waste generated by British reprocessing of Japanese fuel remains in Britain, the curie equivalent of this lower-level waste will be returned in the form of high-level waste. And France plans to send all the forms of waste resulting from reprocessing back to Japan. In addition, Japan will still need to cope with large amounts of waste generated by Rokkasho-mura, even if no more spent fuel is sent to European reprocessors after the year 2000. Final disposal of this home-grown waste, given its much greater volume than spent fuel (including eventual disposal of the Rokkasho plant itself), could present a much greater political and technical problem for Japan than a spent fuel repository.


Japan must separate myths from reality and awaken from the plutonium dream of the past before it turns into a nightmare for the future. The first step is to recognize the Monju accident as both a close call and a blessing in disguise, and to seize the present opportunity to reject plans for a commercial plutonium program. The Monju fast breeder reactor should never be operated again. The Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant and plants to produce MOX fuel for light water reactors should be rejected, as well. In this way, the people of Japan can save many trillions of yen and save themselves from a colossal miscalculation that can only bring grief to themselves, to their region and to the world. By abandoning plutonium and relying on non- weapons-usable uranium, Japan will be free to pursue the path to energy security by both nuclear and non-nuclear means, and without contributing to the danger of nuclear terror and nuclear proliferation.

Steven Dolley, research director of the Nuclear Control Institute, participated in the preparation of this paper.

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End Notes

23. Dr. Jinzaburo Takagi, Citizens Nuclear Information Center, "Plutonium Surplus and Rokkasho Costs Soar," Nuke Info Tokyo, November/December 1995, p. 1. Back to document

24. William Dircks, Speech to the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, April 1992. Back to document

25. "Nonproliferation and Export Control Policy," op cit. Back to document

26. Toichi Sakata, then director of the Nuclear Fuel Division at the Science & Technology Agency, stated that "[i]t is a sheer misunderstanding that Japan is accumulating a huge amount of plutonium, and we do not expect any situation under which plutonium without a definite use would be accumulated in this country. It should be noted here that Japan's plutonium utilization program is to proceed keeping the supply and demand in balance, not only in terms of the long term cumulative inventory, but also on a year-to-year basis. Thus, even temporary accumulation of surplus in Japan is not conceivable." "STA's Thinking," Sekai, November 1992, p. 81. Back to document

27. "Leakproof?," The Economist, January 20, 1996, p. 36. For a detailed analysis of the destabilizing effects of Japan's plutonium program in Northeast Asia, see Paul Leventhal & Steven Dolley, "The North Korean Nuclear Crisis," Medicine and Global Survival, September 1994, pp. 164-175. Back to document

28. Andrew Mack, "Japan and Plutonium: Regional Security Implications," Asia-Pacific Forum on Sea Shipments of Japanese Plutonium: Issues and Concerns, Nuclear Control Institute and Citizens Nuclear Information Center, October 4-6, 1992, Tokyo, Japan, p. 23. Back to document

29. Jon M. Van Dyke, "Applying the Precautionary Principle to Ocean Shipments of Radioactive Material," Nuclear Control Institute, March 1996. Back to document

30. The declaration was presented by the Argentine delegation on behalf of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Indonesia, Ireland, Solomon Islands, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain and Venezuela. Back to document

31. Marvin M. Miller, "Are IAEA Safeguards on Plutonium Bulk-Handling Facilities Effective?", Nuclear Control Institute, August 1990; Paul L. Leventhal, "The IAEA's Inability to Detect Diversions of Bomb Quantities of Plutonium: IAEA Safeguards Shortcomings---a Critique," Nuclear Control Institute, September 12, 1994. Back to document

32. "Leakproof?," op. cit. Back to document

33. "'Astounding' Discrepancy of 70 kilograms of Plutonium Warrants Shutdown of Troubled Nuclear Fuel Plant in Japan," Nuclear Control Institute press release, May 9, 1994. Back to document

34. Mark Hibbs, "Rebuild at PNC's PFPF Plant Will Cost Japan $100 million," NuclearFuel, October 9, 1995, p. 11. Back to document

35. "Pu Hold-Up at PFPF Still Controversial," Nuke Info Tokyo, November/December 1995, p. 3. Back to document

36. Ted Taylor, quoted in David Hughes, "When Terrorists Go Nuclear," Popular Mechanics, January 1996, p. 59. Back to document

37. First Report from the Environment Committee Session 1985-1986, vol. II, p. 554, quoted in Paul Eavis, "The Case Against Reprocessing," in Plutonium and Security, Ed. Frank Barnaby, 1992, p. 20. Back to document

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