by Nora Akino
Fifty years after the onset of the nuclear age, the world is increasingly turning away from nuclear power as a viable future energy source, seeing more and more the disastrous price we have already paid for it in death and environmental destruction. As a result of mounting public opposition, continuing technical problems, high costs, and the yet unsolved dilemma of waste disposal, the worldwide nuclear industry is in decline.
One notable exception is Japan, which is expanding its nuclear program by pursuing an ambitious plutonium-based energy policy. When fully implemented, the Japanese program will involve shipping massive amounts of plutonium across the world's oceans and result in the production of more of that deadly substance than currently exists in the combined U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals.
Plutonium, a by-product of burning uranium in conventional reactors, is the most toxic radioactive substance known to humankind and an essential nuclear weapons material. Japan plans to burn plutonium in both conventional and fast breeder reactors. Fast breeder reactors produce more plutonium than they originally consume, creating an ever increasing supply of fuel. It was this self-supplying aspect of fast breeder technology that so captivated Japanese and Western policy makers in the aftermath of the 1970s oil shocks.
...the Japanese program will involve
shipping massive amounts of plutonium
across the world's oceans and result in the
production of more of that deadly substance
than currently exists in the combined U.S.
and Soviet nuclear arsenals.
Twenty years and tens of billions of dollars later, however, fast breeder technology has failed to live up to its promise of providing cheap, "renewable" energy. The severe environmental and health risks inherent in fast breeder technology have made it extremely expensive and unpopular. Countries like the U.S., Germany, and Britain have abandoned their fast breeder programs because of their prohibitive cost, continuing technical failures, and intense public opposition. If Japan pushes forward with its plutonium policy, it is likely to give new impetus to a technology deemed too dangerous by most nuclear nations and opposed by a majority of the Earth's inhabitants.
Japan is currently building a nuclear fuel cycle facility to extract plutonium from conventional nuclear reactor wastes. When completed, the Rokkasho fuel complex will be the largest of its kind in the world and will be able to separate five tons of plutonium a year. In the mean-time, Japan has been sending reactor waste to France and England for reprocessing. The extracted plutonium will be shipped back to Japan in as many as 30 shipments over the next twenty years. On November 7, 1992, the first plutonium shipment left France for Japan aboard the freighter Akatsuki Maru, and arrived in January amidst international reaction.
The potential risks of overseas plutonium transport are enormous. In a collision, shipboard fire, or sinking, this toxin with a half-life of 24,000 years could enter the food chain and cause an environmental disaster of unprecedented magnitude. Plutonium is also a highly desirable target of terrorists seeking to acquire nuclear arms. A single plutonium shipment could be made into as many as 150 nuclear bombs.
A larger Japanese plutonium stockpile will also pose a serious threat to international security and nuclear non-proliferation. It will make it nearly impossible to dissuade other nations, especially Pacific nations wary of resurgent Japanese military power, from amassing their own nuclear stores under the guise of civilian nuclear programs. This is already a reality in North Korea, where the government, pointing to Japan's own plutonium program, has rebuffed calls by the U.S. and Japanese to dismantle a large reprocessing plant under construction. Current arms reductions efforts also could be undermined if the U.S. and the former Soviet Union find it impossible to destroy their own plutonium stocks in the face of a Japanese stockpile.
Finally, considering the radical changes in the world order that have taken place in just the past two years, and the fact that plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, the future implications of widespread civilian plutonium use are frightening.
Looked at from every possible angle, the costs of civilian nuclear energy programs to life, to the environment and to human and social progress are staggering and unjustifiable. For the last fifty years, the world's nations, industrial and developing alike, have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into nuclear programs that have resulted in untold thousands of radiation deaths, landscapes devastated by uranium mining and waste dumping, and disasters like Chernobyl of which we may never know the full effects. Between 1979 and 1990, International Energy Agency (IEA) governments spent almost 60%, or $35 billion, of their energy research funds (this does not include the hundreds of billions spent on building, maintaining, and repairing commercial plants) on nuclear power, in contrast to 6.3% on energy efficiency and 9.4% on renewable. And yet, over the last two decades, improved energy efficiency in the U.S. has saved several times as much energy as was produced by all this nation's nuclear reactors put together. (These figures are from Worldwide Nuclear Industry Status Report, May 1992, Green-peace, Worldwatch Institute, WISE, Paris)
A number of environmental and nuclear watchdog organizations, including Greenpeace International, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Nuclear Control Institute, are actively opposing Japan's plutonium program. In Berkeley and Tokyo, an organization calling itself Plutonium Free Future has been working since February of 1992 to publicize and mobilize opposition to Japan's plutonium policy. Formed by concerned Japanese and American citizens residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, the group's stated mission is to "raise international awareness of the dangers of civilian plutonium use through political action and public education, and to promote renewable energy development as the foundation of a sustainable future for our children."
...over the last two decades,
improved energy efficiency in the U.S.
has saved several times as much energy
as was produced by all this nation's
nuclear reactors put together.
In October and November of 1992, Plutonium Free Future filed a formal Petition of Objection against Japan's plutonium shipment with the Science and Technology Agency in Tokyo. More than 2200 individuals, organizations, and government figures from 52 nations signed the petition. In response, Science and Technology Agency officials held the first public hearing on the plutonium shipment ever, on December 14th. Over 60 petitioners were present at the hearing, among them lawyers and scientists. The government would answer only technical questions, submitted in writing ahead of time, relating to the safety of the cask which contains the plutonium on board ship. Yet, even though these questions prepared by our scientists were technical and were presented in writing to the Agency in plenty of time, during the public hearing the Agency expert was unable or unwilling to respond with any accuracy. The petitioners were shocked at this disregard of legal public process. Japanese media remained silent about this hearing. Almost no publicity came out. So far the Japanese government has not shown any signs of halting shipments.
In later developments, the Japanese electric utility companies have begun to indicate that they are not eager to continue on the path to commercial fast-breeder reactors. In response to this reluctance the government has renewed its commitment a and indicated that it will continue work on plutonium reprocessing and breeding alone, without the help of the utilities.
But if the electric utilities don't want to use the plutonium, what could it be for?
For more information contact: Plutonium Free Future, P.O. Box 2589, Berkeley, CA 94702 USA. tel: 510-540-7645, fax: 510-540-6159, email: email@example.com.
Nora Akino, a freelance writer residing in Berkeley California, has worked with Plutonium Free Future for the past year. She is a Japanese citizen, raised in the US.
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