All eyes on Akatsuki Maru

MAJOR differences of opinion have surfaced within the government in Japan over the shipment of weapons-grade plutonium from Europe even as the Japanese freighter Akatsuki Maru continues its 27,000 km-long journey from Cherbourg in France to Japan. This is the first large-scale shipment of commercial plutonium fuel, the opening step towards international trade in this explosive material. Japan intends to ship up to 45 tonnes of plutonium before 2010.

Environmental organisations such as Greenpeace International contend the shipment poses a hazard both to the environment and to marine ecology, and would worsen the world oversupply of weapons-grade plutonium. Strong objections have been raised by countries along the expected route to the passage of the ship through their territorial waters.

While international concern arises more out of the risk to the ship from terrorists and accidents, for neighbouring North Korea, the threat that Japan could use the plutonium to build a bomb assumes grave significance, especially as both Japan and the US have been pressing for dismantling of North Korea's own nuclear reprocessing plant. When questioned about double standards, a senior US official remarked, "It's okay for the Japanese because we trust them, but not for the North Koreans because we don't trust them."

Meanwhile, Greenpeace has said the Japanese coastguard vessel, Shikishima, which is escorting the Akatsuki Maru, rammed into its vessel, Solo, off the coast of France. Solo is said to have followed the Japanese convoy, which is taking a secret and circuitous route to ensure maximum security. Nonetheless, Greenpeace has managed to issue daily bulletins of its position.

Japanese experts feel it would be difficult to terminate the plutonium project as billions of dollars have been spent in breeder-reactor technology. When Japan first considered plutonium as a commercial fuel two decades ago, experts saw it as an almost unlimited source of energy because a breeder reactor can use plutonium to produce still more plutonium. But since then, they have found breeder technology difficult to master and uneconomical.

While scientists at the nuclear fuel division of the Japanese Science and Technology Agency officially claim their plans to use plutonium to develop a reliable power system will not change dramatically, some officials admit privately to being disturbed by the global outcry over the dangers of plutonium trade. The president of the Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation in Japan has suggested also that in the wake of vehement protests by Japanese citizens, the country could consider operating future nuclear power stations on unpurified plutonium, instead of the pure weapon-grade plutonium derived from reprocessed nuclear fuel.

The plutonium oxide being shipped in the Akatsuki Maru will be used in an experimental fast breeder reactor in Monju expected to go critical early next year. By 2030, Japan plans to build its first commercial-scale breeder reactor, but experts are not sure how much it will cost, or how long it will actually take. The project is part of Japan's plans for greater energy independence. Japan, which has no oil or uranium resources, imports 99 per cent of its energy supplies and views energy self-sufficiency as a matter of national security.