Japan bets on plutonium Defying danger and protest, ship carries source of fuel venture

TOKYO — TOKYO -- Three decades ago, plutonium, the stuff nuclea bombs are made of, became the stuff industrial countries' wildest dreams were made of.

Now it looks more and more as if Japan may be left alone in the dream. Its neighbors, and other countries further away, tend to see it as a nightmare.


Used in just the right mixtures with exhausted uranium from older nuclear reactors, plutonium would actually turn spent fuels into more plutonium than was being burned. And the world would have seemingly limitless pollution-free electricity.

Three decades later, a ship named Akatsuki Maru is sailing the Atlantic, en route from France to Japan carrying casks filled with gray powder. That total of 1.7 tons of one of Earth's most toxic substances is to become fuel for the last remaining active attempt to make the plutonium dream come true.


Guarded by a helicopter-carrying Japanese naval ship, monitored 24 hours a day by a U.S. spy satellite, reportedly followed by two American nuclear-powered submarines, the Akatsuki Maru and its potentially lethal cargo have been barred from territorial waters by at least four countries, vigorously protested by a dozen others and shadowed by two pursuit vessels of Greenpeace, the environmentalist organization.

"We were not surprised by the interest of groups like Greenpeace, but nobody expected this would get such a high level of attention," said Toichi Sakata, who is in charge of the project at Japan's Science and Technology Agency.

For Japan and for the world's nuclear power establishment, the stakes in the voyage of the Akatsuki Maru are immeasurable.

To Japan, a project that started as a high-risk hope of cutting dependence on foreign oil holds a prospect of making this country the world's leader in a key electric-power technology of the 21st century.

To the world's nuclear establishment, Japan is the last best hope of making the plutonium dream a reality. One by one, most industrial countries opted out of plutonium in the 1970s and 1980s.

Extremely toxic and hard to manage, plutonium was too dangerous to make, handle and use, U.S. planners decided more than a decade ago. One danger, American policy makers thought, was that if the world had too much plutonium, some might fall into the hands of terrorists or renegade governments ,, that could use it to make a bomb.

Accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 brought even simpler kinds of nuclear development to a virtual standstill. Plants that use uranium, a much less risky fuel, were proving far more costly and dangerous than officially predicted.

By the beginning of this decade, only two countries -- France and Japan -- still actively pursued the plutonium dream. And then there was one: Japan.


A string of failures since 1990 has repeatedly forced curtailment of "Super Phoenix," the multibillion-dollar centerpiece of the French plutonium program. France remains heavily committed, but nobody knows whether or when Super Phoenix will get into full service.

That leaves Monju, a $4.5 billion-dollar reactor being completed about 80 miles west of Tokyo. Monju is to start actively burning mixed plutonium-uranium fuel next spring.

In Japan's energy master plan, Monju is the first step toward making plutonium Japan's leading electricity source by the middle of the next century.

If that start-up succeeds, Monju will become the world's only fully active attempt to devise a commercially usable fast breeder-reactor, as the plutonium-burning, plutonium-producing plants are called. The next goal would give Japan the world's first commercial plutonium-burning power plant by 2020 or 2030.

Necessity has already made resource-poor Japan a force in the plutonium business. When the G-7 industrialized countries wanted to help Russia dispose of thousands of tons of plutonium from nuclear weapons, it was Japan that they asked to design a "plutonium furnace," a plant to consume rather than propagate plutonium while making electricity.

Goal is still far off


But Japan is half a decade from being able to reprocess enough plutonium at home to keep Monju running.

The fuel for next spring's start-up at Monju was processed here. The plutonium aboard the Akatsuki Maru is the first of 30 tons this country plans to import under contracts with French and British reprocessors over the next decade or two, Mr. Sakata said. Once it reaches Japan, late this month or early next, it will need two years or more of processing before it can go to Monju.

That prospect of dozens of plutonium shipments between Europe and Japan -- two a year or more for more than a decade -- has aroused both Japan's neighbors and governments as far away as Chile, Argentina and South Africa.

Several Asian governments have questioned whether the country that overran the Pacific in World War II should be trusted with so many tons of the stuff nuclear weapons are made of.

Japanese officials bristle at any suggestion that the only country ever attacked by nuclear bombs might ever build them.

"Japan has demonstrated domestically and internationally a firm commitment to peaceful uses of nuclear energy," the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission said in a recent document that sought to answer these concerns.


Other countries' fears

Farther from home, countries whose coastal waters might be on the Akatsuki Maru's unpublicized route have more immediate concerns. They worry that if it enters their territorial waters, the ship could sink, catch fire and set off a plutonium explosion, or be attacked by nuclear-minded terrorists while near their shores.

Japanese embassies in some countries have worked overtime this fall trying to calm worries about the Akatsuki Maru, Foreign Ministry sources acknowledged last week.

The ministry and the STA called in reporters last week to pass out seven documents and a slick magazine -- more than 200 pages in all -- to try to calm those fears.

"It's inconvenient, to say the least, that we have to deal with what is essentially a question of Japan's credibility, precisely when we are trying to take on more responsibility in world affairs," one former ambassador said recently.

While the government officially defends its program, senior officials of some companies in the consortium that built Monju say, when promised anonymity, that their companies, too, are losing enthusiasm.


"The economic slowdown has cut into profits," one power company official said last week. "And uranium flowed into

Europe at such cheap prices after the Soviet empire broke up that some people wonder whether we need to hurry so much on plutonium after all."

In a little-noted report in July, Japan's Atomic Energy Commission recommended that the government play "a stepped-up role" in paying for the plutonium project.

For Japan, that was an unusual confession. It meant that the usual formula of the post-World War II "economic miracle," heavy private investment and light government coordination, was in deep trouble in one of the country's highest-stakes technology ventures.

With a slow economy sapping tax revenues, no one is saying where the government will seek money for "a stepped-up role" in a project that costs half a billion dollars a year now and unpredictably more in years to come.