New Japanese plutonium plant to increase proliferation risk

Press release - 12 November, 2002

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will not be able to effectively oversee implementation of controls to prevent theft or diversion of weapons-usable plutonium produced in a new reprocessing plant in Japan, according to a new report released today by Greenpeace International.

The nearly-completed Rokkasho-mura plant, located in northern Japan, is planned to start operating in 2005 and could produce as much as 8,000 kilograms of weapons-usable plutonium each year. However, IAEA "safeguards" technology to be applied at the plant will not be able to detect the theft or deliberate diversion of tens of kilograms of plutonium each year, sufficient to build several nuclear weapons.

"The new Rokkasho reprocessing facility in Japan will present a nuclear weapons proliferation risk due to the potential theft and diversion from the massive quantity of weapons-usable plutonium it would produce," said Shaun Burnie of the Greenpeace International Nuclear Campaign. "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. If Rokkasho operates the collective goal of a more secure planet will be further threatened," he added.

Rokkasho, which has been estimated to cost a staggering $20 billion, would separate plutonium from spent commercial nuclear fuel. Currently, Japan has in excess of 38 tons of plutonium stored domestically and in Europe, with not one gram currently being used in its commercial power reactors. Plans to use plutonium fuel (mixed uranium-plutonium oxide, MOX) have been frozen by its largest utility, Tokyo Electric Power Co., and other MOX-use plans are on hold due to concern by prefectural governors and the public over controversy around plutonium use.

The new Greenpeace report comes as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing an export licence submitted on October 17 on behalf of Mitsubishi Nuclear Fuel Company Ltd. to ship depleted uranium to Rokkasho for so-called uranium testing at the plant in 2003. Greenpeace objects to the planned shipment and has called for a thorough U.S. assessment of the nuclear proliferation implications of Rokkasho's operation and the role the export of depleted uranium to assist start-up testing.

"Given the proliferation risk of Rokkasho, the U.S. should reject export of uranium which would aid in the start-up of this plutonium production facility," said Tom Clements, with the Greenpeace Nuclear Campaign in Washington. "Although presented as 'recycling,' reprocessing yields vast amounts of plutonium and nuclear waste while being financially uneconomical and an overall energy drain."

In recent weeks there has been increased speculation that due to the stated nuclear weapons program of North Korea, Japan would reconsider options to become a nuclear power. Such concern follows statements earlier in 2002 from senior Japanese politicians that plutonium from the country's nuclear program would be capable of producing thousands of nuclear weapons.

The Greenpeace report summarizes the technology to be applied at Rokkasho, including enhanced 'Near-Real Time Accountancy" techniques, and in conclusion agrees with the United States Government Office of Technology Assessment which stated 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".1"

Countries directly assisting Japan's plutonium stockpiling program are the UK and France, which reprocess its spent fuel separating out plutonium; Australia, which actively approves the reprocessing of Australian obligated spent fuel, and the United States, which is working with Japan on safeguards technology for Rokkasho, as well as possible supply depleted uranium for testing of Rokkasho operations.

Later this week scientists from a French radiation laboratory, CRIIRAD, will begin an extensive sampling operation around Rokkasho-mura and Northern mainland Japan. The research, supported by Greenpeace, is intended to independently verify current background levels of radioactivity in advance of Rokkasho's operation. Reprocessing plants discharge large quantities of nuclear materials into the air and water are the dirtiest nuclear facilities operating.

Notes: The safeguards report "Planning for failure - international nuclear safeguards and the Rokkasho-Mura reprocessing plant"is available on request.Copies of the 5-page export license application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for depleted uranium to Rokkasho and Greenpeace's submission in opposition are available on request. The license application was made on October 17 by Transport Logistics International on behalf of Mitsubishi.1 Office of Technology Assessment, Nuclear Safeguards and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Office of Technology Assessment, Congress of the United States, Washington, D. C., 1995.