TOKYO -- Later this year, Japan will begin importing plutonium and constructing a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that will combine to give this pacifist nation the world's largest stockpile of plutonium, the raw material for atomic weapons.
The program, which officials here say has no military intentions, is expected to be completed early next century. It calls for the widespread use of plutonium-fueled nuclear reactors to meet Japan's fast-growing demand for electricity. The long-term Japanese goal is to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil and uranium-producing nations like the United States.
But critics say the ambitious program would give Japan far more plutonium than it needs for strictly commercial, non-military uses. Environmentalists contend that shipping the cargo to Japan is a disaster-in-waiting, tempting terrorists and threatening radioactive leaks. Even if Japan has no nuclear armaments program, the critics say it is difficult to keep a foolproof safeguard over supplies.
Japan's projected shift to a plutonium-economy is causing consternation, especially North Korea and South Korea. It is likely to draw strong protest over the next several months as the Japanese government prepares to send a lightly armed vessel from the National Maritime Agency, the equivalent of the U.S. Coast Guard, across two oceans.
Its mission: To guard the first of more than two dozen European plutonium shipments from being hijacked by terrorists or rogue nations. Each one-ton shipment will contain enough plutonium to build at least 100 nuclear bombs.
The plutonium is needed, the government says, to fuel its prototype fast-breeder reactor at Monju, on the west coast of Honshu. It is slated to begin a sustained nuclear reaction by early next year.
Besides the European shipments, which will continue for the next decade, the government plans to build a plutonium-generating nuclear reprocessing plant at Rokkasho, on Honshu's north coast. The plant, which would double as a high-level nuclear waste storage site, is to be completed by the mid-1990s and would be capable of producing eight metric tons of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel each year -- enough to build more than 1,000 nuclear weapons. When coupled with the 30 tons imported from Europe, it would give Japan much more plutonium than it needs for its power industry, the critics say.
"Japan doesn't need to import plutonium, according to our calculations," said Jinzaburo Takagi, a former nuclear chemist who heads the Citizens Nuclear Information Center, part of a growing anti-nuclear movement in Japan.
The United States substantially cut U.S. plans to develop plutonium reactors in the 1970s.
International critics have raised the specter that Japan's plans to build its own reprocessing plant will jeopardize efforts spearheaded by the United States to denuclearize North Korea.
"The single greatest long-term danger to . . . making the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons is Japan and the 100 tons of weapons-capable plutonium it plans to acquire over the next 20 years," Paul Leventhal, president of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, testified before Congress last month.
"That's as much plutonium as in the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal," he said.
Ever mindful of Japan's militarist history, especially its 35-yearcolonization of Korea that ended in 1945, the two Koreas' complaints about Japan's nuclear plans have grown louder in recent months.
Japan, the only country ever attacked with nuclear weapons, scoffs as such charges. Government officials cite the 1970s oil price shocks, pointing out that Japan is a resource-poor island nation.
The U.S. government provided Japan with most of its original uranium fuel and has retained a say in its final usage. In 1988, the Reagan administration approved Japan's plans to send the spent fuel to Britain and France for reprocessing into plutonium. Plutonium, in turn, can be used to create more plutonium.
The United States still must approve Japan's plutonium transportation plans. Nuclear non-proliferation activists have promised to raise the issue with Congress.