Japan Needs to Change Its Nuclear Course
JAPAN'S plans to transport, use, and produce tons of plutonium for its breeder reactor program poses significant and unnecessary risks to the security and well-being of the international community. Tokyo's arguments to the contrary do not stand up under scrutiny.
Just days ago, a Japanese transport ship departed Cherbourg, France, to transport a ton of plutonium to Japan for use in plutonium "breeder" reactors. The Japanese government dismisses concerns about the security of the vessel. In fact, a 1988 study by the United States Department of Defense concluded that "even if the most careful precautions are observed, no one could guarantee the safety of the cargo from a security incident, such as an attack on the vessel by small, fast craft, especially armed with anti-ship missiles."
Any number of countries around the world have the capability to launch such an attack, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. Yet, the transport ship will be escorted by only a single Japanese coast guard ship.
As for safety risks, plutonium is one of the most toxic substances on earth; inhaling even one microgram of it is lethal. Fires on board ships average 23 hours, but the casks carrying the plutonium are fireproof for only 90 minutes. A serious shipping accident could result in a dispersal of the plutonium oxide, causing widespread environmental damage. But the real risk of Japan's plutonium program is that it could accelerate nuclear proliferation. The largest obstacle in obtaining nuclear weapons lies in
acquiring the necessary quantities of plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU).
Saddam Hussein spent billions of dollars over a decade on three separate methods of producing HEU but failed to produce enough for even one nuclear bomb. With just six to eight kilograms of plutonium, Saddam could have built a nuclear weapon far more powerful than those which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet each proposed Japanese plutonium shipment will contain enough material for approximately 120 to 160 nuclear bombs.
Over the next two decades, Japan plans to transport, produce, and use almost 100 tons of plutonium altogether, enough material for more than 10,000 warheads. If a terrorist group were able to secretly divert even one-tenth of 1 percent of this quantity over a period of years, it could build a formidable arsenal.
Japan's nuclear facilities are covered by International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, but the IAEA is not fully capable of detecting small diversions of material from plants handling multi-ton quantities of plutonium annually. In addition, safeguarding Japan's plutonium facilities will put a tremendous added burden on the IAEA's budget at a time when the agency can barely fund its existing safeguard and inspection responsibilities.
Furthermore, Japan's program is legitimizing the use of plutonium in other countries of possibly greater concern. Kazakstan is planning to build a new plutonium breeder reactor, South Korea continues to seek plutonium separation technology, and North Korea has not yet halted construction of its plutonium reprocessing facility. Iran, Iraq, and Libya could eventually seek plutonium fuel cycle technology and fuel, giving them invaluable expertise and training in building nuclear weapons.
These are the risks associated with Japan's plans to transport, produce, and use bulk quantities of plutonium in its nuclear fuel cycle. Japan's justification of this costly and dangerous program is energy independence. But for what Tokyo is spending on plutonium it could stockpile 50 years worth of uranium at the current low prices and still continue its breeder reactor program at the research and development level. Tokyo claims that it needs the plutonium to fuel its prototype Monju breeder reactor. Bu t Japan is capable of producing enough plutonium from its Tokai plant to meet this need.
There is an alternative path for Tokyo to take: It could lead the world toward a solution. The Japanese, more than any other people in the world, understand the threat of nuclear war. Having forsaken militarism after World War II, Tokyo has an additional claim to moral leadership. Japan should call for a complete and total worldwide ban on the production of nuclear weapons-grade materials for any purpose, civilian or military.
This would involve some sacrifice for Japan, as its investment in plutonium breeder reactors is substantial, but it would go a long way toward blocking the spread of the bomb. In such an environment, any evidence that a country was producing plutonium or HEU would indicate a sinister purpose. Any evidence of transfers of equipment, materials, or technology useful for producing these nuclear materials would point to a clandestine program like Iraq's. It would be the single, most effective means of stemmin g nuclear proliferation.
Japan asks for the world's support. We need Japan's leadership on this issue.