Japan Faces World Glare Over Nuclear Shipment

Intense scrutiny may delay next plutonium cargoes, nuclear plans

INTERNATIONAL outcry against the voyage of a Japanese ship loaded with radioactive plutonium has raised new doubts in Japan about plans to create a self-sufficient nuclear energy system.

The doubts were voiced by Japanese officials a week after the container ship Akatsuki Maru left a French port Nov. 7 with over 1.7 tons of plutonium fuel. The ship, returning to Japan on a secretive, two-month journey, is under escort by an armed Japanese ship that so far has tried to elude a pursuing vessel of the environmentalist group Greenpeace International.

The voyage of the Akatsuki Maru has turned into a public relations disaster for Japan, say officials, who admit they did not anticipate that so many nations and environmentalists would focus attention on this first of a planned 30 shipments of plutonium.

"We expected some reactions because of the sensitive nature of the substance, but not so much," says Toichi Sakata, director of the nuclear fuel division of the Japan's science and technology agency.

At least 10 nations that have reason to suspect the ship might travel close to their shores have signaled their concern to Tokyo.

Mr. Sakata says Japan will now "carefully think about future plans" for making 29 more shipments of plutonium from Europe. Other officials say the future shipments are on hold, not only because of public outcry but because of an increasing abundance of uranium on the world market, including an amount expected to come out of nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union.

Without a large amount of plutonium as start-up fuel, Japan's scheme to run fast-breeder reactors for energy could be jeopardized. Under a $4 billion contract, Japan is relying on a French facility to recycle spent uranium from its regular nuclear reactors into plutonium.

The United States and a few other countries have either abandoned or postponed plans for a plutonium-based nuclear industry. But in Japan the nuclear industry carries strong political weight within the government.

"That Japan has rights to enrich uranium and develop technology for plutonium-fuel use cannot be questioned [by others]," states Ryukichi Imai, adviser to Japan's Atomic Energy Commission.

But if and when Japan does question its "rights," it will be "its own decision," he adds. Mr. Imai notes that uranium and military plutonium are transported regularly between the US and Europe.

Japanese officials do not deny reports that US submarines and satellites are helping Japan keep track of the ship in case of possible attack by a terrorist group seeking to use the plutonium to make an atomic bomb.

In its tracking of the ship, the Greenpeace vessel New York hopes to alert those nations that may be affected. Potential spillage of the highly toxic plutonium, which Japanese officials claim is nearly impossible, runs some risk of contaminating the ocean.

But nuclear official Sakata says, "Under the hypothetical case where all the plutonium was immediately released into the sea, the impact on the environment would be small."

Within the next few days, Greenpeace hopes to determine if the Akatsuki Maru will travel either around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. Either way, the voyage could be a long diplomatic nightmare for Japan.

In a number of Asian nations, concerns have been raised about Japan's commitment to remain a nation that would never develop nuclear weapons. In addition, North Korea is resisting calls to open further its nuclear facilities to international inspection, citing as an excuse Japan's plans for using plutonium.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.