JAPAN will enter the plutonium age this year when it starts to import radioactive fuel from Europe by sea.
Western countries are worried that the transportation of plutonium under the escort of a lightly-armed patrol ship of the Maritime Safety Agency (MSA) could become an obvious target of hijackings by terrorists.
In the next three decades, Japan plans to import at least 30 tons of reprocessed plutonium from France and Britain to use as fuel for its nuclear reactors, including Japan's first fast-breeder reactor, which can reproduce more fuel than it spends. One ton of plutonium is enough to make more than 100 atomic bombs.
For security reasons, MSA officials decline to reveal details about shipment plans, including the departure date and route. A Japanese newspaper reported the shipments will get underway next November.
France, Britain, and the United States are worried about whether the MSA escort ship, the 6,500-ton Shikishima, can prevent possible attempts by terrorists to hijack the plutonium shipments.
Hawkish Japanese politicians are urging that Japanese Navy ships provide the escort for the plutonium ship. But the MSA says it believes the Shikishima escort vessel can provide sufficient protection.
Meanwhile a Japanese Self-Defense Agency official says the Self-Defense Forces are not committed to guarding the plutonium ship. But if the ship is attacked, Japan "naturally will exert its self-defense rights" under international and domestic laws.
The plutonium shipment plan has also aroused concerns among US legislators and antinuclear and environmental groups about the proliferation of weapons-grade plutonium in the world.
The Nuclear Control Institute, a US-based independent think tank, says Japan does not need to import plutonium for its nuclear power generation plans.
The institute quoted Japanese scientist Tatsujiro Suzuki as estimating Japan's plutonium surplus would reach 40 to 50 tons by the year 2010 if Tokyo proceeded with plutonium imports from Europe and with reprocessing at a facility planned at Aomori in northern Japan.
The environmental group Greenpeace says output at Japan's reprocessing plant at Tokai along with the plutonium previously imported from Europe would be sufficient to meet the needs of its experimental breeder reactors and a mixed-fuel development program.