After Fukushima disaster, serious questions about Japan's new Rokkasho plant

Experts fear Japan's planned plutonium production presents tempting terrorist target

After Fukushima disaster, serious questions about Japan's new Rokkasho plant

Note: Yahoo News begins a partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, with this excerpt from its investigative series on the future of nuclear power in Japan after the radiation disaster at its Fukushima plant. You can read the full series here.

ROKKASHO, Japan—Sporting turquoise-striped walls and massive steel cooling towers, the new industrial complex rising from bluffs astride the Pacific Ocean here looks like it might produce consumer electronics or bath salts.

But in reality it is one of the world’s newest, largest, and most controversial production plants for nuclear explosives.

The factory’s private owners said three months ago that after several decades of construction, it will be ready to open in October, as part of a government-supported effort to create special fuel for the country’s future nuclear power plants.

Japan’s leaders affirmed last month they intend to proceed with that effort, a decision that has stoked anxiety in East Asia and set off alarms among Western experts who worry about the spread of nuclear weapons technology — including some inside the Obama administration.

Once it is running, the plant will produce thousands of gallon-sized steel canisters containing [BD1] plutonium, which in theory could provide fuel for a huge nuclear arsenal.

Publicly, the United States has said little about Japan’s plans to enlarge its already substantial hoard of plutonium. Washington formally granted Japan the unlimited right to use U.S. technology and nuclear feedstock for the plant during the Reagan administration. Now some of that materiel is to be returned, under a deal to be announced later this month at a U.S.-led international summit in the Netherlands promoting the security of nuclear materials that can be used as explosives.

It all sounds calm and cordial. But since Obama was first elected, Washington has been lobbying furiously behind the scenes, trying to persuade Japan that terrorists might regard Rokkasho’s new stockpile of plutonium as an irresistible target — and to convince Japanese officials they should better protect this dangerous raw material.

Read the Center for Public Integrity's full story, "Japan could be building an irresistible terrorist target, experts say," on its site.

Specifically, U.S. officials have struggled, without success so far, to persuade Japan to create a more capable security force at the plant than the white-gloved, unarmed guards and small police unit stationed here now. They also have been trying to persuade the privacy-minded Japanese to undertake stringent background checks for the 2,400 workers employed here.

It’s been a hard sell for Washington, according to experts and officials in both countries familiar with the diplomatic dialogue. With U.S. prodding, Japan has gradually heightened security at Rokkasho and other nuclear sites, but officials in Washington say they remain worried that the improvements are too slow and incremental.

The dialogue highlights a vast gulf in the two countries’ security cultures. Japan has been far less ready than the United States to imagine and prepare for nuclear-related disasters; its federal agencies have deferred to state and utility officials on safety and security issues; and its political leaders have shown little interest in cooperating with U.S. and other Western experts to improve its standards.

Some Japanese officials have told their American counterparts that the homogenous, pacifist nature of their society makes nuclear conspiracies unlikely — a conclusion that U.S. officials and independent experts categorically reject. Other Japanese officials have insisted that in a nation where gun ownership is rare and privacy rights are zealously guarded, armed guards and background checks are unacceptable at even at the riskiest sites.

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“It is a system that relies heavily on the expectation that everyone will do what they are expected to do,” said a senior Obama administration official. As a result, “the stuff we would kind of expect to see” at a dangerous nuclear facility “is not there.”

A consortium of electric utilities, Japan Nuclear Fuels Limited, has spent 22 years building the plant, the cornerstone of a plan to build the world’s first energy system based on plutonium-powered, fast breeder reactors. (Breeder reactors — a technology considered and rejected in the United States more than 30 years ago — are so named because they can produce more plutonium than they consume.) Japanese consumers are paying the $22 billion bill for its construction through a surcharge on their electric bills.

When the Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Center at Rokkasho is operating at full capacity, it’s supposed to produce eight metric tons of plutonium annually. That’s enough in theory for a country like Japan to make an estimated 2,600 nuclear weapons, each with the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT.

When the Rokkasho plant was conceived, Japan believed plutonium-burning reactors would make the island nation energy independent. The facility was embraced as a way to convert nuclear wastes into fuel on a crowded archipelago rocked by violent earthquakes, dotted with active volcanoes, and lashed by tsunamis and typhoons.

Critics of the plant point out, however, that Japan has no urgent need for a single kilogram of the plutonium the plant will produce.

Already, Japan has 9.3 metric tons of plutonium stored at Rokkasho and nine other sites in the island nation, along with around 35 tons of plutonium stored in France and the United Kingdom. Altogether, Japan has the fifth-largest plutonium stockpile of any nation, representing nine percent of the world’s stocks under civilian control.

Included in that figure is 331 kilograms — 730 pounds — of high-grade plutonium, the kind preferred by weapons designers, that Japan has agreed to send to the United States. It was sent there by the United States and Britain in the 1960s and 1970s to assist researchers.

Once Rokkasho opens, the size of this stockpile could easily double in five and a half years, because by the government’s own forecast Japan is at least 20 years from completing the first of the commercial reactors designed to burn the plutonium that Rokkasho will produce.

The Japanese government has a backup plan to burn a mixture of Rokkasho’s plutonium and uranium in a third of Japan’s 48 operable light-water power reactors. But after the tsunami-provoked nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011, all of those reactors have been closed. And if they are reopened, perhaps beginning later this year, the communities that host them may be wary of letting the reactors burn plutonium-laced fuel, Japanese political analysts say.

In its familiar dull-gray metallic form, a pound of dense plutonium takes up much less space than a pound of lead. A lump weighing a little more than six and a half pounds — enough to make a weapon — is the size of a grapefruit. The point, critics say, is that an eight-fluid-ounce thermos full of the metal in the wrong hands could produce a devastating terror attack.

Read the Center for Public Integrity's full story, "Japan could be building an irresistible terrorist target, experts say," on its site.

Toshihiro Okuyama and Yumi Nakayama, staff writers for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, contributed reporting for this article.