Risks to soar with new Japanese nuclear plant

Greenpeace report says safeguards not enough to avert plutonium theft

Feature story - 12 November, 2002
Plutonium is the world's most deadly substance and an important ingredient of nuclear bombs. A new Japanese nuclear facility, soon to open, could produce as much as eight thousand kilograms of plutonium a year. But deficient safeguards at the plant mean enough plutonium to build several nuclear bombs could be stolen or diverted from the plant each year, a new Greenpeace report shows.

Aerial view of Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant, taken from Greenpeace sampling kite.

Colossal price tag, enormous risk

The Rokkasho plant is estimated to cost a staggering $20 billion, more than the GDP of Fiji, Mongolia or Belize. It is designed to reprocess spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors. Reprocessing plants are the dirtiest nuclear facilities operating. They discharge large quantities of nuclear pollution into the air and water, just to create a product with no current peaceful use - plutonium. Japan's plans to use plutonium as commercial reactor fuel are in disarray, frozen because of controversies and local government concern over the increased risks associated with its use.

Not only will Rokkasho use a dangerous, dirty process to create a product Japan can't use, it will also increase the risks to nuclear weapons proliferation in the region, said Greenpeace campaigner Shaun Burnie. "The on-going tension in northeast Asia over nuclear weapons can only be reduced if countries such as Japan and North Korea halt their pursuit of nuclear materials which can be used in such weapons."

IAEA cannot demonstrate ability to safeguard

According to the new Greenpeace report, International Atomic Energy Agency "safeguards" technology applied at the plant will not be able to detect the theft or deliberate diversion of tens of kilograms of plutonium each year. That's enough each year to build several nuclear weapons.

Summarising the safeguards technology to be used at Rokkasho, including enhanced "Near-Real Time Accountancy" techniques, the report concurs with the United

States Government Office of Technology Assessment that, "To date, the IAEA has not considered the possibility that it may be unable to safeguard large facilities but neither has it been able to demonstrate that it can".

U.S.: Don't allow exports

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now reviewing an export licence from Mitsubishi Nuclear Fuel Company Ltd. to ship depleted uranium to Rokkasho. Greenpeace objects, and has called for a thorough U.S. assessment of nuclear proliferation risks at Rokkasho. Given these risks, the U.S. should reject exports of uranium that would help the Rokkosho start its operation.

Rokkasho: We'll be watching

Later this week scientists from French radiation laboratory CRIIRAD will begin extensively sampling around Rokkasho-mura and Northern mainland Japan. Greenpeace supports the research because it will independently verify the background levels of radioactivity around the plant before Rokkasho starts operation