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Thursday, March 23, 2000

REACTOR FOR ENERGY OR WEAPONS?

Monju ruling infuriates plaintiffs


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Antinuclear activists expressed shock and outrage Wednesday over the Fukui District Court's ruling against local residents' efforts to permanently close the Monju fast-breeder reactor, and both plaintiffs and their lawyers vowed their nearly 15-year battle was not over.

"This is the worst possible verdict. We will file an appeal Thursday," said Kimiko Fukutake, the main attorney for the plaintiffs.

"Today's verdict shows that Japan's judicial system is not working, and I'm boiling with anger at the unjustness of it," said Fukui resident Miwako Ogiso, an antinuclear activist and member of the group.

What especially upset the activists is that presiding Judge Yoshihiko Iwata offered no words of concern over the safety of Monju -- which has been shut down since a sodium leak in December 1995 -- or Japan's plutonium program.

"The judge was unprofessional and the ruling was pathetic. In the earlier ruling against the Onagawa (nuclear) plant, the judge expressed concern about the operation of the plant. But Iwata just read the verdict and told the plaintiffs they had to pay the costs," said Aileen Smith, of Green Action Kyoto.

The Sendai High Court last March ruled against plaintiffs seeking to close Tohoku Electric Power Co.'s Onagawa plant in Miyagi Prefecture. Judge Toshimi Muto said there was no danger to the plaintiffs, but he criticized the utility for resuming operations without clearly explaining the cause of a temporary shutdown in 1993.

Monju, which sits on the edge of Tsuruga Bay, has been controversial since its construction began in 1985. The plant was built at a cost of 600 billion yen and was designed as an experimental fast-breeder reactor that would burn plutonium, instead of either conventional uranium or plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel.

The government saw, and still sees, Monju as the first of several fast-breeder reactors to be built. Original plans, first formulated in the 1970s, called for two more along the Sea of Japan coast, with plutonium fuel to come from the Rokkasho processing plant in Aomori Prefecture.

But the national government's decision came at a time when world opinion was turning against plutonium reactors. The U.S. had abandoned its own plutonium reactor program in the late 1970s, and many other countries followed suit.

At the time, the logic behind the use of plutonium was that, in the long term, uranium sources would become scarce, driving energy costs up. A 1980 state white paper on plutonium reactors promised they would provide practically endless renewable energy that would make Japan less dependent on foreign oil.

That didn't happen and the price of uranium yellow cake has remained relatively stable the past 20 years. , leading many economists to question the cost benefits.

Antinuclear activists, though, were more worried about safety. When construction of Monju began, Ogiso and other residents sued to try and stop the plant, arguing that plutonium was too toxic to be handled safely.

Over the following decade, plutonium safety became a subject of a heated debate between activists and the government, and led to bizarre attempts to convince the public that plutonium was not harmful.

In February 1993, authorities distributed an animated video called "Mr. Pluto," in which a young boy is encouraged to take a drink of "safe and drinkable" plutonium.

That video prompted a letter of protest from then U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary to Takao Ishiwatari, president of Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. O'Leary called the ad misleading and the video was later withdrawn.

Monju was completed in 1991 and, over international protests, a shipment of plutonium arrived in Japan from Europe in 1992. After a series of startup tests in August 1995, Monju produced some electricity for a brief period.

But in December 1995, a fire inside the plant occurred after at least one ton of sodium coolant leaked from a secondary cooling system. Sodium burns when it comes into contact with oxygen or water, and the steel plates covering the concrete floor were severely warped. A Monju official later admitted that, had the concrete been exposed, the moisture on the floor would have led to a major explosion.

The accident shook the foundations of Japan's nuclear power industry and was made worse by revelations of a coverup by the nuclear power authorities. Finally, PNC was abolished, and in its place arose the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute, which is now in charge of operating Monju, which remains closed. There are no plans to restart it in the near future.

The nongovernmental Tokyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center estimates there is 367 kg of plutonium stockpiled at Monju, and about 10 kg in the reactor itself. This has fueled the ultimate concern of those opposed to the plant: plutonium stockpiles for possible military use.

Japanese pronuclear authorities have argued for years that it would be nearly impossible to build nuclear weapons from reactor-grade plutonium. However, the International Atomic Energy Association has officially stated that any combination of plutonium isotopes can be used in an atomic weapon. Other experts estimate as little as 8 kg of reactor-grade plutonium could be used to make a 20 megaton bomb.

At the moment, Japan has an estimated 5,000 kg of plutonium either stockpiled or in use. Over the past 30 years, there have been several efforts on the part of officials to look, quietly, into going nuclear.

In 1994, it was revealed that former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who had suggested what became Japan's three nonnuclear principles -- to not manufacture, possess or allow entry of nuclear weapons -- had commissioned a study into the development of atomic weapons.

This study, combined with the 1970 and 1980 Defense Agency white papers that said defensive nuclear weapons do not violate the Constitution and Foreign Ministry officials' quotes in 1992 and 1994 that Japan should not entirely disregard the nuclear option, raised fears that Monju's, and Japan's plutonium stockpiles, were really for future weapons systems, not energy needs.

"Even the government has admitted that Monju would only produce something like 1 percent of the nation's energy needs after 50 years, it's hard to see what else it might be for," Green Action's Smith said.



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