AMONG the few hundred Japanese who protested against the Jan. 5 arrival of a ship carrying highly toxic plutonium, one name could be heard on many lips: Al Gore.
The incoming United States vice president is seen by many activists as a stronger force against Japan's plutonium program then they are. In the past year, Mr. Gore's strong environmental views have become well-known in Japan. "Only the Clinton administration can stop Japan from shipping more plutonium," says Jinzaburo Takagi, head of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo.
The cargo of more than 1.5 tons of plutonium, which arrived at a port north of Tokyo amid sporadic protests, is the first of about 30 shipments planned by Japan to be delivered from plants in France and Britain. The plutonium is being recycled from the spent uranium fuel of Japanese nuclear power plants for use in a prototype fast-breeder reactor, called Monju, which is due to start up in 1995.
Japan's leaders hopes this special reactor, which produces more plutonium than it consumes, will help this resource-poor nation become independent of foreign uranium and reach the goal of having 43 percent of its electricity generated by nuclear power by the year 2010, compared to the current 27 percent.
Most Japanese support the nuclear program, despite expressing anxiety about it, according to official polls. Dr. Takagi admits that the Jan. 5 protests were "not large enough" to force a policy change.
Because Japan's present uranium supplies originally came from the US, it is required to seek Washington's permission for the plutonium shipments.
Takagi, the most well-known critic of Japan's plutonium program, has written to Vice President-elect Gore and contacted the Clinton presidential transition team in hopes that they will reverse the approval of the shipments given by the Bush administration.
In a Senate speech last June, Gore said that Japan will ultimately review its program to produce "vast quantities" of reprocessed plutonium. "The sooner this happens, the better," he stated.
This first plutonium shipment left the French port of Cherbourg Nov. 7 under extreme secrecy by the Japanese government, arriving two months later in the port of Tokai, having been trailed partway by vessels from the environmental organization Greenpeace. It passed by South Africa, Australia, and through the South Pacific.
IN the meantime, protests by a dozen countries, which feared the ship might pass through their ocean waters, convinced the Japanese government to partially lift the secrecy upon its arrival.
This shift is a sign of a split between the Japanese government and nuclear industry, says Paul Leventhal, president of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute. Japan's minister for science and technology, Mamoru Nakajima, told reporters that the plutonium policy is being reviewed.
With a glut of uranium on the world market, some electric utilities in Japan are questioning if they can afford an expensive plutonium program, which other industrialized nations have dropped, Takagi says.
The government's secrecy only heightened the concerns of other nations over the potential for spillage of the plutonium or the chance of a terrorist heist of the weapons-grade material. And some nations, especially North Korea, speculated that Japan's intention is to develop a nuclear bomb.
The Bush administration, meanwhile, was ordered by Congress last year to study the safety and other aspects of the shipment. The interagency study was due in late December, but has not been released, perhaps because of differences within the Bush administration.
"The next administration might take a different view," Mr. Leventhal says.