Second quarter of 2002

Japanese Governor remains doubtful over national plutonium policy

WISE-Paris, 27 May 2002

[posted 27/05/2002]

Eisaku Sato, the Governor of the Japanese Prefecture of Fukushima, recently confirmed his critical position towards the national government’s plutonium program. In a 17 May 02 statement, at a meeting with village leaders for an opinion exchange in Namie Town, the Governor pointed out that “reprocessing (of spent nuclear fuel) results in rapid accumulation of plutonium” and therefore that “it makes one suspicious about whether Japan wants to hoard plutonium”. (1)

The Governor statement was issued only a month and a half after Japanese Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa declared on 6 April 02 in a stunning statement that Japan has the ability to manufacture “thousands of nuclear warheads(2). While Japan does not produce weapons grade plutonium, Marvin Miller from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) confirms that scientists have the competence to build weapons using reactor grade plutonium should they get the political go ahead.

According to Marvin Miller, (3) speculations over Japan’s plutonium stockpiles are due to several factors:
- “China’s assertive political and military posture towards Japan.
- “North Korea’s nuclear and missile development program.
- “Japan’s strong commitment to closed nuclear fuel cycle and its growing surplus of reactor-grade plutonium.

Being the only victim of nuclear attacks and protected by the US nuclear umbrella, Japan has always rejected any intention to acquire nuclear weapons. Should Japan decide to develop nuclear arms, a currently highly unlikely but not unfeasible hypotheses, it would have first to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and would be violating the Agreement for Co-operation between Japan and the US Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (4). Also, suppliers of nuclear materials would be obliged, both by domestic legislation and by the NSG (Nuclear Supplier’s Group), to end all transfers of materials and technology to Japan. As Dr. Edwin Lyman, President of the Nuclear Control Institute as of 1 June 02, recently stated: “Ozawa’s nuclear threat could be an extraordinarily dangerous policy for Japan, abandoning Japanese rejection of nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it could destabilize all of Northeast Asia.

While the world was puzzled about the intent of Ozawa-san’s declaration, the latest statement by the Fukushima governor highlights the growing criticism, even in the country, over national plutonium policy. Fukushima and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa (Niigata Prefecture) officials remain opposed to the loading of plutonium-uranium or MOX fuel at TEPCO’s Fukushima I-3 and Kashiwazaki-3 reactors in the framework of the so-called ‘Pluthermal’ program. After the decision of the Fukushima Governor in February 2001 not to authorize MOX use and the referendum organized in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa on 27 May 2001, which led to the long term delay of the start of MOX use in both prefectures, the debate hit the national level. The Fukushima Governor now goes as far as stating : “I think it is time we discuss what would happen if we didn’t reprocess for 50 years”. The Japanese reprocessing plant of Rokkasho-mura, currently under construction, is planned to start-up in 2005. Japan has planned since the end of the 80s to become independent from the European nuclear industries by setting up its own fuel industry. However, the key facility in the Japanese scheme, the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant, encountered delays in its construction and therefore engendered ever increasing costs.

Japan is in a transition phase, as all of the 2,924 t of the Light Water Reactor spent fuel sent to COGEMA-La Hague plants have been reprocessed and 1,550 of the 2,680 t of LWR spent fuel contracted at Sellafield have been reprocessed also (5). Even if an additional 1,500 t of Gas Cooled Reactor spent fuel could be sent to Sellafield for reprocessing, Japan aims to phase out the costly and complicated overseas spent fuel management scheme. The Tokai reprocessing plant, with a nominal capacity of 210 t/year, which reprocessed around 970 t of a total of 1,030 t under contract between 1975 and 2000, is not able to respond to Japanese needs. After the severe accident in March 1997, where a fire and explosion destroyed the bituminization workshop, the entire plant was shut down for three years. (6)

The Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant, with 800 t of nominal capacity, which began construction in 1989, was designed, like the Tokai plant by the French Société Générale pour les techniques Nouvelles (SGN), a COGEMA daughter company that also designed the La Hague plants. However the construction costs of 6.3 billion Euros planned in 1989, tripled in ten years to reach 18.3 billion Euros in 1999, compared to some 4.5 billion Euros investment cost for the equivalent La Hague UP3 plant. The reasons for the 4 times higher cost figures for Japan remain obscure.


  1. Mainichi Newspaper Fukushima Edition Article, « Pluthermal Program : Governor States Strong Distrust « Does (the Government) want to stock Plutonium… », 18 May 2002, translation by Green Action, Kyoto
  2. NCI (Nuclear Control Institute), April 9, 2002, Press Release,
  3. “Japan, Nuclear weapons, and reactor-grade plutonium” Marvin Miller, March 27 2002, Seminar at NCI
  4. November 4, 1987
  5. Figures as of the end of 2001
  6. Hideyuki Ban, « Current situation on plutonium issue in Japan », CNIC, April 2001

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