Plutonium at Sea

JONATHAN POWER

November 13, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- Of all 1992's incidents of unnecessary risk, not one exceeds the wilful decision of the Japanese and French authorities to ship over the high seas from France to Japan a cargo of plutonium, the most toxic, dangerous and expensive substance known to man.

We are told that this cargo, carrying enough plutonium to make over a hundred nuclear bombs, is well protected -- by a single Japanese escort warship, with extra monitoring by U.S. warships, planes and satellite observation.

We have been assured by the French minister responsible that before very long these trips will be so regular and routine they'll not even be noticed. And soon, we can surmise, the American planes and ships will have other things to do than be on permanent patrol for Japanese shipments.

Only fools can say there is no risk -- the same kind of people who thought they'd minimized risk to PanAm 103 after a U.S. warship accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner during the Iran-Iraq war. And yet, careful work by vengeful terrorists found the hole in the security net. Only the inert will downplay the chances of a well organized commando raid by submarine or helicopter spiriting away at least a portion of the cargo on one of these future routine voyages when everyone's guard has dropped.

Already there is a well established black market in nuclear fuels. The recent seizure of uranium by German police, although not bomb-grade, raises the unanswered questions of whom these traffickers expect to sell to, where, for what?

Every year about eight kilograms of enriched uranium, suitable for bombs, goes missing from British nuclear facilities. Officially it is explained by encrustration in the pipes or other natural processes. But no one knows for sure. Of course, uranium can't simply be smuggled out in a pocket. It would have to be a very superior type of theft operation. Nevertheless, it is clear that a number of countries -- Iraq, Israel, Iran, Pakistan -- have got their hands on forbidden material by illegal means.

Why, then, is Japan taking this kind of risk? Supposedly it is meant to fuel a breeder reactor, the power plant that, once operational, can survive without outside refueling. To develop a commercial breeder reactor will probably take another 40 years, conceivably much longer. Most countries that once experimented with the idea have cooled on it, partly because of the expense and the hostility of the environmental lobby, partly because uranium is proving to be cheaper and more abundant than earlier forecasts.

A number of strategists have assumed that Japan's deeper motivation is to take precautions that would enable it to develop nuclear bombs if, a generation from now, it finds itself lacking security.

This confounds notions of Japan as a firm pacifist nation whose public opinion was stamped by Hiroshima. Indeed, the government has had to cajole the Japanese power companies into the plutonium deal, but the tough, unsentimental men in Japan who are taking these nuclear decisions today are looking 30 or 40 years ahead, to a time when a new generation may have another viewpoint and the geopolitics of the East may be differently arranged.

Or, perhaps nothing more sinister is afoot than unthinking bureaucrats mechanically implementing decisions made long ago when OPEC used to threaten us with energy shortages. (Of course, Japan could secure its energy needs for 60 years by buying up uranium with the money it is now spending on the plutonium enterprise.)

France and the U.S., by their role in providing and protecting the shipment, are parties to this decision. Supposedly against nuclear proliferation, they are, in this case, aiding and abetting it. Signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are meant to bring their own policies into line with its spirit, even if they can argue that its letter doesn't forbid the development of civilian power. After all, if Japan isn't encouraged to forgo policies that lead to totally unnecessary risk, why should North Korea, South Korea, Iran or anyone else?

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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