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Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley

Nuclear Control Institute


Presented to the Conference on

Carriage of Ultrahazardous Radioactive Cargo by Sea:

Implications and Responses


Maritime Institute of Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

October 18, 1999


Overview: Japan’s Nuclear Power Program

and the Sea Shipments Driven by It


We are pleased to address this important conference on the troubling topic of Japan’s sea shipments of nuclear materials. 


  To understand the significance of these plutonium-fuel and nuclear-waste shipments, and to explore the potential for stopping them, it is necessary to understand the Japanese plutonium program that drives the shipments, and the potential for stopping this program.  If Japan’s plutonium program expands as planned, dozens of shipments of fuel and dozens of shipments of waste  will take place over the next 20 years, posing grave threats to the environment, human health, and regional security.


  These nuclear sea shipments are inextricably tied to the history and goals of Japan’s program to recover plutonium from spent commercial nuclear-power reactor fuel by means of “reprocessing.”  Japan’s domestic reprocessing capability is minimal, limited to a small facility at Tokai-mura.  The Tokai reprocessing plant was shut down by a fire and explosion in 1997.  A commercial-scale reprocessing plant has been under construction at Rokkasho-mura for many years, but delays and cost overruns have plagued the project, and it will likely be at least several more years before the plant is completed, unless it is abandoned first.  Even if started up, it may never operate at full capacity. [1]


  Consequently, Japan has contracted with state-owned reprocessing industries in France (Cogema) and Great Britain (British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, BNFL) to recover plutonium from its spent fuel.  Several hundred tons of Japanese spent fuel have been shipped to Europe since the 1970s.  In 1984, 250 kilograms of separated plutonium (equivalent to the amount needed to build at least 30 nuclear weapons) were returned by sea to Japan.  A much larger shipment (1.7 metric tons) of plutonium sailed to Japan in 1992, escorted by an armed Japanese cutter, the Shikishima.  The shipment that arrived in Japan last month contained 446 kilograms of plutonium in 40 mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (“MOX”) fuel elements.  A huge surplus of about 25 tons of separated Japanese plutonium remains in storage in France and Great Britain.  This overseas surplus is projected to increase to 45 tons by 2010, despite plans for at least one or two MOX-fuel shipments to Japan each year for the next 15 years.  The surplus of separated plutonium stored in Japan now amounts to more than five tons.


Highly radioactive reprocessing waste, vitrified in half-ton, steel-encased glass logs, is also returned to Japan from France and Great Britain by sea.  The first such shipment took place in 1995, and there have been three additional shipments since, one each year in 1997, 1998, and 1999.  More than 3,000 such canisters of vitrified nuclear waste are to be returned to Japan. There were 28 canisters in the first shipment in 1996, 40 canisters in the second shipment in 1997, 60 canisters in the 1998 shipment, and 40 canisters in the 1999 shipment.  Future shipments will carry 150 canisters, and at least 15 to 30 shipments are likely over a 15-year period.  Each shipment contains more highly radioactive material than was released in the 1986 Chernobyl accident.


  From the beginning, these plutonium and waste shipments have been highly controversial, particularly among en-route coastal states, with whom Japan has refused to consult or engage in emergency planning.  Formal protests have been raised by dozens of these states, as well as such regional organizations as the South Pacific Forum and Caricom.  Japan has turned a deaf ear to these protests, as well as to requests that such shipments stay out of the territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the littoral states.


The Plutonium Dream:

The Rest of the World is Awakening from It,

But Japan Dreams On


  Why does Japan insist upon recovering hundreds of tons of weapon-usable plutonium?  Its energy planners still stubbornly cling to an outmoded 1950s vision of nuclear power, a plutonium dream that envisioned a “closed fuel cycle” that would provide electric power “too cheap to meter” by means of chemically separating plutonium from spent fuel in reprocessing plants and breeding even more plutonium in fast breeder reactors (FBRs).  Most other major industrial nations have abandoned FBRs and reprocessing, but Japan remains committed to dangerous, outdated plans for a breeder economy.


  Thirty years ago, it was assumed that nuclear power reactors would soon become the primary method of generating electricity in the developed world, and eventually in the developing world, as well. It was also expected that rapid growth in nuclear-powered electricity would quickly outstrip the world's ability to produce large enough amounts of affordable uranium fuel for power reactors. As a result, it was assumed that nuclear-power programs would reprocess spent fuel to separate out plutonium, and the recovered plutonium would be used to fuel breeder reactors. These breeders would produce more plutonium than they consumed, and create unlimited amounts of inexpensive electricity.


Japan, ever since its decision in 1956 to acquire an indigenous reprocessing capability, shared in this plutonium dream. The oil supply disruptions and price shocks of the 1970s reinforced Japan's commitment to develop plutonium as the means of assuring energy independence.  However, the world's plutonium dream began to fall apart in the 1970s as the underlying assumptions began to fall away. High capital costs and safety concerns caused many nations to scale back dramatically their nuclear-power development programs. At the same time, uranium turned out to be far more abundant than anticipated.  After an abortive attempt by major suppliers to form a uranium cartel in the 1970s, the price of this commodity began steadily to decline as the market became oversupplied.


This reversal of fortune for plutonium has been reflected in changes in the nuclear-power programs of most major industrial states. The United States, the nation that originally created the plutonium dream through its "Atoms for Peace" program of the 1950s, put the brakes on plans for a domestic closed fuel cycle in the 1970s, as a result of directives from Presidents Ford and Carter. The rejection of plutonium recycle for the U.S. nuclear-power industry was formalized by cancellation of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor and Barnwell reprocessing plant projects in the early 1980s, during the Reagan Administration.


Beyond economic realities, a primary force motivating these actions was growing concern about the nuclear-proliferation and nuclear-terrorism risks of the plutonium fuel cycle. This concern has been carried forward by the Clinton Administration, which declared in its 1993 non- proliferation policy statement that "[t]he United States does not encourage the civil use of plutonium, and accordingly, does not itself engage in plutonium reprocessing for either nuclear power or nuclear explosive purposes." Because of proliferation concerns, the Clinton Administration halted work on the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor, a modified breeder-reactor technology, in 1994.


Plutonium advocates in Western Europe and Japan are quick to blame the anti-reprocessing policy of the United States for their misfortunes, and do not like to acknowledge what actually has happened to the plutonium industry over the last 20 years.  It is afflicted with a fatal condition, one with numerous causes.  The demise of the fast-breeder reactor (FBR), the original rationale for closing the fuel cycle, was the first and primary etiology.


The United States abandoned its FBR program in 1983 with the cancellation of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor.  Since then, the major nuclear industrial nations have followed one by one, until today only India, Russia and Japan still plan to develop FBRs.  Japan’s program is on hold after a near-catastrophic sodium leak and fire crippled the experimental Monju FBR in December 1995. Construction of a follow-on demonstration FBR was postponed indefinitely.  Russia’s economic crisis will block its FBR development program for the foreseeable future.  India’s breeder is essentially a non-starter, and its May 1998 nuclear-bomb tests confirmed what the world long suspected: its civilian plutonium facilities have been a front and a source of material for its nuclear weapons program.   Japan, France and Russia still cling stubbornly to the FBR pipe dream, and have begun discussions on how they can pursue cooperative breeder reactor R&D.


Other causes of this terminal disease include substantially diminished prospects for future nuclear power capacity.  A quarter-century ago, President Gerald Ford’s “Project Independence” energy policy anticipated that 1,000 commercial nuclear power plants would be operating in the United States by the year 2000.  One year short of that milestone, less than half that number are operating in the entire world.  As a result, uranium resources and enrichment capacity are cheap and abundant.  The enormous capital costs of plutonium fuel cycle facilities have proved to be a millstone around the neck of the nuclear power industry, aggravated by the fact that plutonium-uranium, mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel is at least ten times more expensive than standard low-enriched uranium fuel (LEU).  Finally, there is a grudging recognition of the safety and proliferation risks associated with the plutonium fuel cycle.


Nevertheless, Japan continues with its ambitious plutonium fuel cycle plans, but they are set back by accidents, scandals and delays.  As noted, the FBR program was left in limbo by the 1995 Monju accident.  In addition, a fire and explosion contaminated 37 workers at the Tokai-mura reprocessing plant in March 1997.  Efforts by investigators to cover up and doctor evidence from the Monju FBR and Tokai reprocessing plant accidents led to the dismantlement of the state-run Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC), which had been in charge of FBR development in Japan. 


  On September 30, an inadvertent nuclear chain reaction, or so-called “criticality accident,” occurred at the JCO Co. Ltd. Conversion Test Building at Tokai-mura, Japan, about 75 miles northeast of Tokyo.  The chain reaction, which gave off intense heat and radiation, could not be brought under control until 18 hours later. 


The accident began when workers were converting enriched uranium into oxide powder for use in preparing fuel for the Joyo experimental fast breeder reactor.  This reactor is part of Japan’s plutonium-production program.  The uranium was enriched to 18.8% U-235, far higher than the 3 to 5% enriched uranium used as fuel in Japan’s conventional nuclear power reactors.  Breeder fuel, whether enriched uranium or plutonium, is far more susceptible to criticality accidents than power-reactor fuel.


  It appears that workers deliberately circumvented safety measures to save time.   A solution of uranyl nitrate was transferred into a large-volume precipitation tank, rather than the smaller, cylindrical container required by regulations.  One of the injured workers reported that some 16 kilograms of uranium solution had been poured into the precipitation tank, nearly eight times more than its criticality safety limit of 2.4 kilograms.


At one point, radiation levels near the plant were 15,000 times above normal background.  A total of at least 49 people were contaminated with radiation, including 39 JCO staff, seven residents, and three firefighters who transported the injured workers.  Two of the workers received such high doses of radiation that they are not expected to survive.


In further setbacks to the plutonium program, data used to certify Kansai Electric’s MOX fuel transportation cask was found to have been falsified, and the cask is now undergoing relicensing. Also, BNFL recently acknowledged that it had falsified quality-control data on MOX fuel pellets it was preparing for use in a Japanese power reactor, and an investigation is now underway to determine if there has been more extensive falsification of this key safety data.


Nations such as South Korea, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China have growing nuclear power sectors, and could be influenced by Japan’s example in developing policies for the back end of the fuel cycle.  Over the last several years, both South Korea and Taiwan have expressed interest in exploring reprocessing and MOX options, and Cogema, BNFL, and Minatom have aggressively sought their business despite U.S. opposition to the recovery of plutonium from fuel originally supplied by the United States to South Korea and Taiwan.  China has begun construction of a small reprocessing plant, which it hopes to complete by next year.   Nuclear utility and government officials in these candidate states should be paying close attention to the plutonium quagmire that Europe and Japan now find themselves in.


Japan's plutonium program should therefore be assessed from an international perspective.  The environmental, public health, and nuclear-proliferation risks associated with this program extend beyond Japan’s borders, making it a proper subject for international concern despite Japan’s view that it is a purely domestic question of Japanese energy policy.  Besides Germany, Japan is the single largest client of both the French and British state-controlled plutonium industries.  Starved of new contracts, these industries would likely have to shut down. With Germany now actively exploring alternatives to reprocessing, Japan is apparently prepared to sustain single-handedly the British and French plutonium industries despite the growing consensus that plutonium is unjustifiable from a commercial standpoint and antithetical to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.


  Japan’s Plutonium Program Threatens Regional Stability


  Japan’s “Reactor-Grade” Plutonium Is Atomic Bomb Material


For years, Japanese plutonium separation has been intended to guarantee plutonium fuel for future breeder reactors. The 1992 plutonium shipment was claimed to be urgently needed to fuel Japan's new Monju breeder reactor. Yet, when that shipment was underway, it was announced that, in fact, the plutonium was only to be held for future use. Actually, the 1.7 tons of plutonium delivered in that shipment have never been used but remain stockpiled in Japan. Monju has been shut down after the severe accident in 1995, and Japan has no serious plans to construct a new breeder reactor. Now the in-country stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium stands at over 5 metric tons---equivalent to at least 600 nuclear weapons.


  The nuclear industry and bureaucracy in Japan has launched a media campaign intended to obscure the proliferation risks of this plutonium stockpile, and of the MOX fuel being shipped from Europe.  The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF) stated in August that “since the plutonium in the [MOX] fuel pellets is derived from spent fuel recovered from nuclear power plants, only a small proportion of the plutonium is suitable for nuclear fissile use, making it questionable whether it is useful at all as a material for atomic bombs.” [2]  


The plutonium lobby is causing confusion over whether so-called “reactor-grade” plutonium (which contains a higher proportion of the Pu-240 isotope than the “weapons-grade” plutonium produced in the bomb programs of the nuclear weapons states) can actually be used to make bombs.  In fact, that question was settled long ago.  Nuclear-weapon designers from the United States, Great Britain and Russia agree that bombs can be made from reactor-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards system treats virtually all isotopes of plutonium as 'direct-use material,' suitable for bombs. Only the Japanese plutonium industry claims otherwise, and it doesn't provide a shred of evidence to contradict the weapons designers.


MOX supporters have claimed that, even if reactor-grade plutonium could theoretically be used in bombs, its higher levels of heat and spontaneous neutron generation make it nearly impossible to develop effective, reliable weapons with large explosive yields.  However, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded in its 1997 non-proliferation assessment of MOX fuel that


          At the lowest level of sophistication, a potential proliferating state or

          subnational group using designs and technologies no more sophisticated

          than those used in first-generation nuclear weapons could build a nuclear

          weapon from reactor-grade plutonium that would have an assured,

          reliable yield of one or a few kilotons (and a probable yield significantly

          higher than that)....Proliferating states using designs of intermediate

          sophistication could produce weapons with assured yields substantially

          higher than the kiloton-range...In short, reactor-grade plutonium is

          weapons-usable, whether by unsophisticated proliferators or by advanced

          nuclear weapon states. Theft of separated plutonium, whether

          weapons-grade or reactor-grade, would pose a grave security risk. [3]


  Because the Pu-240 isotope emits more spontaneous fission neutrons than Pu-239 (which makes up over 90% of weapons-grade plutonium), it is more likely to "predetonate"---that is, to begin the chain reaction too early to achieve full explosive yield when the bomb is detonated. Bomb designs utilizing reactor-grade plutonium would also require a somewhat larger critical mass of plutonium, and would need to account for the greater heat generated by Pu-238. These differences between reactor-grade and weapon-grade plutonium are not nearly as important from a non-proliferation perspective as some have argued.


The ability to construct a weapon from reactor-grade plutonium was demonstrated decades ago. It is dangerous even to consider it an open question. Hans Blix, then director-general of the IAEA, informed the Nuclear Control Institute in 1991 that there is "no debate" on this point in the Safeguards Department of the IAEA. [4] The IAEA Department of Safeguards stated that "even highly burned reactor-grade plutonium can be used for the manufacture of nuclear weapons capable of very substantial explosive yields." [5]   In June 1994, U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary declassified further details of a 1962 test of a nuclear device using reactor-grade plutonium, which successfully produced a nuclear yield.


  In fact, reactor-grade plutonium may be even more desirable than weapon-grade plutonium as a bomb material for terrorist or other sub-national groups. Its characteristic of spontaneous emission of neutrons increases the probability of pre-detonation but eliminates the need to include a neutron initiator in the weapon, considerably simplifying the task of designing and producing such a weapon.  Even if a bomb using reactor-grade plutonium were to “fizzle” because of pre-detonation, the fizzle yield would still be about one ton of TNT, and the unfissioned plutonium would be dispersed by the explosive force, making this a deadly radiological device as well as a fission bomb.


Japan's neighbors should not buy the industry's propaganda campaign.  They should be aware that the plutonium in the MOX-fuel shipments could be used to make dozens of bombs. In light of this, Japan should carefully consider the ominous signal that its plutonium program sends to its neighbors.


Despite Japanese denials, nuclear-weapon experts unanimously agree that plutonium in commercial forms can be used to construct nuclear weapons. In fact, for this very reason, Japan does not want other countries to launch plutonium-use programs which would lead to their possession of weapons-usable material. The spread of plutonium programs would lead to a new and deadly phase of nuclear proliferation---one which could make the new century far more dangerous than the one we have survived.  Japan has a clear choice: It can terminate its plutonium program and assume leadership in the international drive to ban the production and use of plutonium.  Or it can be the driving force for global plutonium commerce. The latter course is perilous both for Japan and for the international community.


Japan May Yet Choose to Exercise Its Nuclear-Weapons Option


Japan insists that it has only peaceful intentions for its enormous and growing surplus of separated plutonium.  However, the political situation faced by Japan is highly fluid and unstable.  Volatile relations between North and South Korea, the nuclear-armed stand-off between a newly-elected coalition government in India and a new military junta in Pakistan, and dedicated efforts by China to upgrade its nuclear arsenal all factor into Japan’s defense equation.  These continued regional security threats could erode the “nuclear taboo” that has prevented Japan from becoming a nuclear weapons state.  Recently, Professor Atsuyuki Suzuki of Tokyo University, a strong proponent of Japan’s civilian plutonium program, suggested that Japan’s adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would be ensured “if the world’s nuclear weapons states treat Japan as a virtual nuclear weapons state.” [6]  


Morton Halperin, prior to assuming his current post as director of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, described Japan’s “threshold state” status.


[J]apanese governments have done what was politically possible to support U.S. nuclear policy while quietly putting Japan into a position to be able to quickly develop nuclear weapons and sophisticated missile delivery systems should a consensus develop in Japan that this needed to be done. . . . Yet while [Japan] insists that it is determined not to develop nuclear weapons, Japan has a peaceful nuclear power program that generates weapons-grade plutonium, and it also has a space exploration program; many believe that there are Japanese officials that know exactly how to turn these activities into a program that produces nuclear weapons mated to effective delivery systems, although there is disagreement about how quickly Japan could have a truly functional nuclear force. . . . No one should take for granted the Japanese commitment over the long run to refrain from developing nuclear weapons. [7]


Some leading Japanese politicians have begun to advocate publicly that Japan become a nuclear-weapon state.  In July, Shingo Nishimura, an LDP member of parliament, stated that “Japan must be like NATO countries.  We must have the military power and the legal authority to act on it.  We ought to have aircraft carriers, long-range missiles, long-range bombers.  We should even have the atomic bomb,” though he conceded that “I’m probably in the minority there.” [8]


The nuclear-weapon potential of Japan’s plutonium program should not be ignored by its  regional neighbors, because there is no credible economic rationale for the enormous plutonium surplus that Japan is accruing.  As security analyst Andrew Mack of Australian National University explained,


The energy security argument which has provided the central justification for Japanese involvement in the plutonium/fast breeder economy no longer seems compelling to many outside observers.  There is currently a glut in the world uranium market – and nothing to prevent the Japanese from stockpiling uranium if energy security is a major concern. . . . If the energy security and economic arguments for Japan’s involvement in the plutonium economy are even less compelling today than ever before, then it is hardly surprising if regional states should ask what other possible motives Japan may have for creating so much plutonium. [9]


It must be recognized that these concerns will become far more acute if Japan proceeds with plans that will cause it to acquire over 100 tons of separated plutonium by 2010, more than is now contained in the deployed weapons of the nuclear superpowers.


En-route Nations Object to Japan’s Nuclear Shipments


The recently-concluded MOX fuel shipment is the first plutonium shipment to Japan since 1992. Global concern about the safety and security of the 1992 plutonium shipment caused an international outcry and led  nations to condemn, and in some cases prohibit, this transport from their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).


During the 1992 plutonium shipment, the Japanese government sought to quell the controversy by promising to make details more transparent and to keep the shipment more than 200 miles away from other nations coasts. Those promises were not honored, and the shipment proceeded under circumstances of great secrecy. There was no consultation with en route states regarding route and emergency plans. That transport, as well as nuclear waste shipments since then, have sailed inside EEZ waters of a number of countries.


The Japanese government, together with the UK and France, are now replicating the  mistakes and magnifying the risks of the 1992 plutonium shipment. Despite repeated requests from governments and non-governmental organizations, the Japanese government refused to conduct an international environmental impact assessment of this plutonium shipment as required under customary international law and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (articles 204, 205, 206). Nor have the Japanese, British and French governments met the legitimate demands of dozens of potentially affected en-route nations for consultation and concurrence on route, emergency, and  salvage plans, as well as issues related to liability and compensation.


The initial vitrified-waste shipment in 1995 of 28 containers sailed around South America's Cape Horn, through the Pacific to Japan. Argentina, Brazil and Chile ordered the ship to remain outside their coastal waters. Chile used a gunboat to force the ship to leave its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.  At a 1996 meeting of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), coastal nations along three potential routes of the nuclear shipments raised legal and technical objections. Led by Argentina, they asked for a binding code requiring prior notification of voyages, advance consultation on emergency-response planning, a clear-cut liability regime, and a demonstrated ability to salvage lost cargos. 


Japan has yet to grant any of these requests as they relate to its nuclear shipments.  Yet, Japan does not hesitate to act to protect its own environmental interests.  The Japanese nuclear utility TEPCO ordered its own MOX-fuel shipment back to sea just as it arrived last month, in case a typhoon that was passing through were to damage the vessel and release its radioactive contents.[10]  This was an exercise of territorial sovereignty that Japan has refused to respect when en-route states have requested that Japanese nuclear shipments stay out of their waters. 


Earlier this month, the South Pacific Forum protested the shipments, stating “its view that shipments of radioactive materials and Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel through the region posed a continuing concern…[and] reiterated the expectation that such shipments should be carried out in a manner which addressed all possible contingencies and the concerns of relevant countries, including coastal states of the region.”  Among the Forum’s expectations was that the shipper would compensate “the region for economic losses caused to tourism, fisheries and other industries affected as a result of an accident involving a shipment of radioactive materials and MOX fuel even if there is no actual environmental damage caused.”[11] [emphasis added]  Japan should now be sensitive to this appeal, since Ibaraki prefecture’s tourism, fishing, and orchards were severely hurt economically when people stayed away from the area as a result of the Tokai criticality accident.[12]


Are Japanese Safety Lapses at Home

Being Transferred to the High Seas?


The concerns of en-route nations are both understandable and justified.  Japan’s plutonium safety record has been deplorable.  As noted earlier in this paper, a number of major accidents have occurred in the last several years, including the Monju FBR sodium leak, the fire at the Tokai reprocessing plant, and the criticality accident at the Tokai fuel plant.


Another initiative that poses a serious accident risk is Japan’s ambitious program (the “Plu-thermal” program) to use MOX fuel in its conventional light water reactors (LWRs).  The MOX shipment that arrived in September was the first batch of fuel destined for this program.  One ship contained eight fuel assemblies, intended for use in the Takahama No. 4 plant in Fukui Prefecture, that were manufactured at BNFL's MOX Demonstration Facility (MDF) at Sellafield. It was revealed in September, while the ships were still en route to Japan, that employees at MDF violated quality control procedures by falsifying size data for at least ten lots of MOX fuel pellets. Although BNFL claims that the MOX fuel in the current shipment was not affected, this incident raises doubts about the credibility of its entire quality control system. The quality of all the MOX fuel produced at MDF is therefore subject to question.


The Japanese nuclear industry dismisses severe accidents as having such a low probability of occurrence that they are effectively impossible.  In 1983, JCO and its regulators concluded that a criticality accident at the Tokai fuel plant was “impossible”---a posture quite similar to the one that applies to a breach- or bypass-of-containment accident at light water reactors.  A recent study by Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI scientific director, concluded that the use of MOX fuel in LWRs increases the consequences of such accidents and may increase the probability as well.  In particular, because of the greater concentrations of toxic radioactive isotopes such as plutonium, americium and curium in a light-water reactor operating with MOX fuel compared with one operating on LEU fuel, the consequences for public health of a core-meltdown accident would be significantly greater.


Sea Shipment Security Arrangements are Inadequate


Plutonium and MOX Shipments


Physical protection is one of the most important issues when weapon-usable nuclear material is being transported.  Because of the inherent difficulties in protecting material produced by the ton that can be used by the pound to make atomic bombs, the International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism recommended that such materials---separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium---should be given protection in civil programs “equivalent to government protection of weapons” and that “extraordinary precautions should be taken to protect them from terrorists.”[13]


Over a decade ago, Japanese nuclear safeguards expert Hideo Kuroi correctly anticipated that, due to the complexity and expense of security and safeguards, “international transportation may be the ‘Achilles Heel’ of the Japanese nuclear industry.”[14]  Despite this vulnerability, the physical protection requirements for each successive shipment of plutonium to Japan have been ratcheted down even as the capabilities of international terrorist organizations and of the states that support them have been ratcheting up.


In 1984, a shipment of 253 kilograms of plutonium took place aboard a Japanese cargo vessel.  The U.S. Department of Energy has disclosed that the vessel was placed under surveillance by military vessels, or maritime safety vessels, including U.S. vessels, throughout the voyage.  In 1992, 1.7 tons of plutonium were shipped aboard a specially-outfitted British cargo vessel and escorted throughout the voyage by a Japanese coast guard cutter, the Shikishima.


Yet in May, the U.S. State Department bowed to Japanese demands that the then-pending MOX shipment---containing enough plutonium for at least 60 nuclear weapons---not be escorted by the Shikishima. (The United States has to approve Japanese plutonium transport security plans because the plutonium is derived from U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel.) Richard J.K. Stratford, director of the State Department Office of Nuclear Energy Affairs, wrote the Japanese government that a revised plan---in which two British freighters would escort each other, armed with light cannon and machine guns and manned with civilian guards---"fully satisfies" the requirement for "adequate physical protection of the nuclear material." This arrangement is expected to establish a precedent for dozens of larger MOX fuel shipments to Japan now planned over the next 10 to 20 years involving more than 50 tons of plutonium.


The revised security arrangement violates Japanese obligations under the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. The two relatively slow and lightly armed freighters, manned with civilian guards from the UKAEA Constabulary, are not capable of repelling an attack by terrorists or a nation determined to hijack atom-bomb material. Under this security arrangement, both ships are carrying plutonium and each therefore would be a target for seizure.


We now have reason to believe, based on a legal analysis, that the Japanese and British governments misled the U.S. government by stating that the PNTL vessels are "under government service."[15] There is no legal basis to the claim that these commercial freighters are "under government service" to the United Kingdom. Thus, Japan has failed to meet its security and transport obligations under the terms of the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.


Given that the plutonium fuel contained in this shipment is classified under international regulation as "direct-use" nuclear weapons material, capable of being fashioned into a nuclear bomb in one to three  weeks, the security lapses attending this shipment were irresponsible and inexcusable.  The 1992 shipment of plutonium involved a pure form rather than one mixed with uranium.  Japan has long insisted that the mixed-oxide fuel requires less security because it cannot be used directly in nuclear weapons. However, in January 1997, the U.S. Department of Energy declared in a nonproliferation assessment statement that "fresh MOX fuel remains a material in the most sensitive safeguards category, because plutonium suitable for use in weapons could be separated relatively quickly and easily." A year earlier, a "Proliferation Vulnerability Red Team Report" by DOE’s Sandia National Laboratory estimated that in a matter of weeks a team of four people could separate weapons-usable plutonium from fresh MOX fuel pellets and put it in a suitable form for use in nuclear weapons.[16]


Of particular concern was the absence of radar-directed anti-missile armaments on board the ships despite a 1988 assessment by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff that maritime transports of plutonium would be vulnerable to "small, fast craft, especially if armed with anti-ship missiles."[17] The threat assessment on which the design of the current security plan is based (the so-called "design basis threat") assumes only an attack by terrorists rather than by an outlaw state or by terrorists supported by such a state.


Wishful thinking, not the real world, is the basis for these security arrangements.   There is also the desire by Japanese and European plutonium interests to keep down transport costs and to keep up appearances of plutonium as a benign fuel. As noted, Japan's nuclear power industry denies that plutonium produced and used in power reactors is an atom-bomb material. With this kind of physical protection and public relations, commercial plutonium could become a tempting target for terrorists and nations that want the bomb.



Nuclear Waste Shipments


Despite the fact that they do not contain significant amounts of weapons-usable materials, the shipments of high-level nuclear waste also pose major security concerns.  In February 1998, Greenpeace protesters managed to board the Pacific Swan as it passed through the Panama Canal with its load of 60 high-level waste canisters. 


Neither Panama Canal nor PNTL security forces challenged the protesters as they approached the ship, boarded it, and chained themselves to the mast.  A Panama Canal Commission (PCC) memo, obtained by Greenpeace International through a Freedom of Information Act request, found that "communication, command and control...was dysfunctional" when Greenpeace protesters easily boarded the nuclear-waste ship. The report noted that patrol boats had failed to spot the Greenpeace launch and that the ship's crew had thought the demonstrators to be security personnel boarding the ship.


Had the ship been boarded by a group of well-armed attackers instead of peaceful demonstrators, its cargo would have been in grave jeopardy, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the people of Panama. Given the shippers' frequently professed concerns about security, we were astonished to discover how thoroughly inept and ineffective were the security arrangements at the Panama Canal. In fact, essential elements of the security system did not work.


Given the ineffectiveness of Canal security as detailed in this report, a thorough evaluation of sabotage scenarios for commercial vitrified-waste shipments is urgently needed. A January 1997 report by Sandia National Laboratories describes a credible theft scenario.  In a two-stage attack, terrorists use a shaped charge to penetrate the cavity of a VHLW shipping cask containing canisters of nuclear waste with imbedded warhead plutonium. They then inject a low-explosive charge to blow off the lid of the cask to facilitate theft of the undamaged canisters within.


The Sandia analysis, however, suggests a credible sabotage scenario for commercial vitrified waste shipments by noting that "excessive explosive charge size can rupture and deform" the waste canisters within the cask.[18] The Sandia report did not analyze what effect the injection of a high-explosive charge in the cask cavity would have. We believe such a charge would cause serious damage to the radioactive contents and would likely result in the expulsion of pulverized glass both in the form of respirable particles and non-respirable fragments.


Such a two-stage attack utilizing high explosives in the Panama Canal (or, for that matter, in the Strait of Malacca) could result in both the sinking of the ship and the dispersal of deadly radioactive material over a large area. The environmental and economic consequences of such an attack would be catastrophic. We have requested that Sandia be directed to carry out this further study before any additional high-level vitrified waste shipments are permitted to pass through the Canal.


Japan’s Nuclear Sea Shipments are Unnecessary


The severe risks of Japan’s sea shipments are made all the more unacceptable by the fact that the shipments are entirely unnecessary.  Japan offers two justifications for the plutonium program that drives these shipments: energy security and nuclear-waste management.  We will examine each rationale in turn.


Japan does not need plutonium fuel or breeder reactors for energy security


Advocates of plutonium recycling claim that world uranium reserves will prove insufficient, perhaps facing total depletion within a few decades.  Such predictions are based on the narrowest available estimates of total uranium reserves, that is, “Reasonably Assured Resources” (RAR) recoverable at a cost below $80 per kilogram of uranium oxide. However, RAR includes only well-known, completely explored deposits.  If Estimated Additional Resources, Category I (EAR-I)---known resources in deposits that have not been completely explored---are also included, estimates of world reserves increase by more than half.  Further, according to these OECD/IAEA estimates, “There remains very good potential for the discovery of additional uranium resources of conventional type, as reflected by estimates of EAR-II and Speculative Resources.”[19]


Even if Speculative Resources are excluded, uranium reserves would suffice to fulfill projected world demand until the year 2062 from resources recoverable up to $80/kg of uranium oxide, or until the year 2075 from resources recoverable up to $130/kg. Ample uranium exists to fulfill world demand far into the future.  Additionally, long before these conventional uranium resources are depleted, rising prices would make uranium production from unconventional sources, such as seawater, economically competitive, providing nearly boundless uranium supplies without the need to resort to breeding plutonium.[20]


Even if Japan did not have confidence in the continued abundance of uranium on the world market, it could stockpile a “strategic uranium reserve” containing a 50 years’ supply of low-enriched or natural uranium, for less than half the cost of its plutonium program.[21]


Japan Does Not Need Reprocessing or Plutonium Fuel for Nuclear Waste Management


Reprocessing proponents also claim that reprocessing and recycle represent a superior waste-management alternative to the direct disposal of spent fuel in a geologic repository.  They cite the reduced volume of high-level waste when uranium and plutonium are recovered and fission products are mixed in a glass matrix to create vitrified high level waste (VHLW).  They also claim that the VHLW contains less toxic and radioactive content than the equivalent amount of spent fuel.


First, to state the obvious: If plutonium and recovered uranium from reprocessing are not recycled as MOX fuel, either in LWRs or breeder reactors, no volume-reduction or toxicity-reduction benefits ensue, because the plutonium and uranium must still be disposed of.  In fact, uranium recovered from reprocessing is not being widely used on a commercial basis, because it is far more expensive than unirradiated uranium oxide, and also contains isotopes such as U-232 that complicate its reuse and pose environmental safety and health risks. 


Nor at this time is there widespread recycle of plutonium, because of the high costs and risks, discussed earlier, that make MOX fuel so unattractive to utilities and so threatening to the survival of the nuclear power industry.


Even if the uranium and plutonium were recycled, the irradiated MOX fuel must still be disposed of in a geologic repository.  Plutonium advocates often imply, when addressing non-technical audiences, that plutonium can be recycled in a closed fuel cycle until it is entirely used up.  However, such complete burning of plutonium in MOX is impossible.  After only two or three recycles, the isotopics of plutonium are such that it cannot continue to be re-irradiated in fresh MOX fuel, and must be disposed of.[22]    Moreover, even the most fervent MOX supporters (France and Russia) do not currently plan to reprocess LWR MOX fuel even once for recovery and re-use of plutonium.


Once MOX fuel enters into the equation, any purported waste-management benefits of reprocessing are forfeited.  In fact, in regard to volume and toxicity, irradiated MOX is considerably worse than irradiated LEU for three reasons.  First, reprocessing itself creates substantial intermediate- and low-level waste streams.  When this waste is taken into account, the volume of reprocessing waste products requiring deep geological disposal is greater than the volume of waste from the equivalent amount of once-through LEU fuel by at least a factor of ten. [23] Second, the key variable determining the volume requirements for a geologic repository is the total heat loading, not the physical volume of the spent fuel.  In this regard, MOX spent fuel creates much greater heat loading than the comparable amount of LEU spent fuel, at least during the first hundred years or so when heat loading is most significant. [24]   Third, irradiated MOX fuel has considerably more radiotoxic content than its LEU fuel equivalent. [25]


It is worth noting (but it is not surprising) that the only assessments claiming waste-management advantages for reprocessing and recycle are those prepared by the plutonium industry itself.  Independent studies invariably conclude either that there would be no significant waste-management difference between the two cycles, or that reprocessing-recycle would be worse than once-through/direct disposal.


What are Japan’s Alternatives?


Japanese utilities, which account for more than half the foreign spent fuel at Sellafield, BNFL’s reprocessing complex in Great Britain, might welcome the opportunity to defer reprocessing of their spent fuel and thereby avoid use of expensive, inefficient and controversial MOX fuel. Japan's breeder reactor program is in limbo, prefectural officials are reluctant to approve the introduction of MOX fuels in light-water reactors, and controversy continues unabated over sea shipments of vitrified high-level waste and plutonium from Europe to Japan. Therefore, an indefinite deferral of reprocessing makes good sense, especially since Japanese utilities would be likely to be willing to pay substantial fees for storing spent fuel at Sellafield in lieu of the costs of fabricating and using MOX fuel.


France and Great Britain should also consider whether it will be feasible to return nuclear waste to Japan and other foreign customers over the long term. The international community is likely to object strongly to shipments of thousands of containers of hazardous nuclear waste that have no economic or energy value, but which could have devastating health and environmental consequences in an accident or act of sabotage. It may be preferable to store Japan's unreprocessed spent fuel, or return it to Japan, rather than to store nuclear waste from reprocessing.


There is still the question of what to do with Japanese plutonium already separated from spent fuel.  If COGEMA and BNFL make it impossible for Japanese utilities to cancel impending reprocessing contracts in favor of spent-fuel storage, Japanese utilities should request that COGEMA and BNFL immobilize their separated plutonium in highly radioactive waste. The plutonium could be mixed with ceramic or glass and placed in small cans. These cans then would be placed inside canisters at the French R7T7 and British WVP waste-vitrification facilities. There, the canisters would be filled with molten, vitrified high-level waste, locking the plutonium into the equivalent of spent fuel with a self- protecting radiation barrier. This approach, known as "can-in-canister," is currently under development in the United States for disposition of at least a part of its stockpile of surplus military plutonium. [26]  




Japan’s plutonium program, and the sea shipments of nuclear materials that sustain it, pose environmental, safety and proliferation risks that extend far beyond its borders.  Nations in Southern Asia and the rest of the world, to the extent that they are exposed to these risks, have the right to demand that Japan respect their territorial sovereignty and, ultimately, pursue safer energy alternatives that avoid the separation and use of plutonium.  The key to stopping ultrahazardous nuclear transports to Japan is to appropriately influence Japan to halt the underlying plutonium program that prompts these transports.

[1] Mark Hibbs, “’Too Late’ to Scuttle Rokkashomura Reprocessing Plant, Utilities Claim,” Nuclear Fuel, October 4, 1999, pp. 7-8.

[2] Editorial, “Plutonium Transportation—How a Terrorist Looks At?,” Atoms in Japan, August 1999, p. 3.


[3] U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Storage and Excess Plutonium Disposition Alternatives, DOE/NN-0007, January 1997, pp. 38-39.


[4] “Blix Says IAEA Does Not Dispute Utility of Reactor-Grade Pu for Weapons,” NuclearFuel, November 12, 1990.


[5] T.E. Shea and K. Chitumbo, “Safeguarding Sensitive Nuclear Materials: Reinforced Approaches,” IAEA Bulletin, #3, 1993, p. 23.


[6] A. Suzuki, Quoted in Mark Hibbs, “Tokyo Won’t React to DPRK Threat by Leaving NPT, Officials Assert,” Nucleonics Week, August 12, 1999, p. 11.


[7] Morton Halperin, “The Nuclear Dimensions of the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” Nautilus Institute, July 9, 1999, pp. 15-16.


[8] Shingo Nishimura, quoted in Doug Struck, “Japan Reluctantly Sharpening Its Sword,” Wall Street Journal, August 2, 1999, p. A13.


[9] Andrew Mack, “Japan and Plutonium: Regional Security Implications,” in Asia-Pacific Forum on Sea Shipments of Japanese Plutonium: Issues and Concerns, Nuclear Control Institute and Citizens Nuclear Information Center, Tokyo, October 4-6, 1992, p. 24.


[10] “Japan—Plutonium Ship,” Associated Press wire service, September 22, 1999.


[11] Thirtieth South Pacific Forum, “Forum Communique,” Koror, Republic of Palau, 3-5 October 1999, Article 30.


[12] Mainichi Shimbun, October 10, 1999.


[13] “Report of the International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism,” in P. Leventhal and Y. Alexander, Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: The Report and Papers of the International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism, Lexington Books, 1987, pp. 17-19.


[14] Hideo Kuroi, “Physical Protection Philosophy and Techniques in Japan,” Journal of the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management (INMM), January 1988, p. 31.


[15] Eldon V.C. Greenberg, “MOX Transport/Use of Vessels ‘On Government Service,’” Legal Memorandum to the Nuclear Control Institute, September 29, 1999.


[16] U.S. DOE Nonproliferation Assessment, 1997, op cit, p. 85.


[17] Department of Defense report, quoted in Congressional Record, October 21, 1988, p. E3602.


[18] J.P. Hinton et al., Proliferation Vulnerability Red Team Report, Sandia National Laboratories, SAND97-8203 UC-700, October 1996, p. 4-14.


[19] OECD-NEA/IAEA, Uranium 1991: Resources, Production and Demand, 1992, Table 1, p. 21.


[20] Toru Hiraoka, Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, “Nuclear Electricity Generation Using Seawater Uranium,” Atoms in Japan, December 1994, pp. 14-16.


[21] Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley, “A Japanese Strategic Uranium Reserve: A Safe and Economic Alternative to Plutonium,” Science & Global Security, 1994, Volume 5, pp. 1-31.


[22] Report by the Working Party on Physics of Plutonium Recycling, NEA Nuclear Science Committee, Physics of Plutonium Recycling, Volume I: Issues and Perspectives, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, 1995, pp. 115-116.


[23] Frank von Hippel, “Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing and Radioactive Waste Disposal,” Princeton University, January 1983, p. 3.


[24] G. Kessler et al., “Direct Disposal Versus Multiple Recycling of Plutonium,” in Proceedings of the International Conference and Technology Exposition on Future Nuclear Systems: Emerging Fuel Cycles and Waste Disposal Options: Global ’93, Seattle, Washington, September 12-17, 1993, pp. 277, 280.


[25] U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, Managing the Nation’s Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste, March 1985, p. 72.


[26] Edwin Lyman, “Just Can It,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December 1996.


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