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Japan Readies Feared Plutonium Ship for Voyage to France

July 1, 1992

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan is preparing to import plutonium from Europe, moving in secret and taking precautions against accidental leaks that could poison the food chain and to prevent it falling into the hands of terrorists.

The first shipment by freighter of about a ton of plutonium intended for use in an experimental nuclear reactor was informally approved by the United States.

The departure of the freighter that will load the plutonium in France was rumored to be imminent. The ship was believed to have left on a training mission on Tuesday.

For security reasons, the Japanese government has refused to comment on the freighter’s departure date or route. But Japan has previously said the shipment would occur in the fall.

The plans have provoked anti-nuclear protests and last-minute jitters on some Pacific islands, including Hawaii.

Last week, spurred by Hawaii Gov. John Waihee, the U.S. Western Governors’ Association issued a statement from Jackson, Wyo., calling for ″independently verifiable standards″ for the freighter and shipment casks.

″I am not satisfied that adequate safeguards are in place to protect human, animal life and the general environment,″ Waihee said.

In a last-ditch effort to block the shipment, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D- Hawaii) recently introduced a bill in Congress that would require stricter standards for plutonium casks passing through U.S. territorial waters. But the measure has little chance of affecting the shipments.

The Japanese government maintains the plutonium will be secure in leak- proof casks. To prevent any high-seas nuclear piracy, the freighter is to be accompanied by an armed coast guard cutter. The ship will have the benefit of U.S. satellite surveillance, Japanese officials have said.

On Tuesday, the ship left its sequestered berth at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries shipyard in Yokohama Harbor on what was believed to be a training mission, according to Yurika Ayukawa of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an anti-nuclear group tracking the ship.

The voyage to France is expected to take about a month. Toichi Sakata, who oversees the shipment program for the government’s Science and Technology Agency said that, depending on the route, the trip back to Japan could take six to 10 weeks.

The Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington-based anti-nuclear group, says three or four routes are being considered, including west through the Panama Canal or around Cape Horn, or east through the Suez Canal or around the Cape of Good Hope.

Japan, which depends on imports for virtually all its energy, has long been developing nuclear power as a means to energy independence.

But unlike the ordinary low-enriched uranium that powers commercial plants, plutonium can be used both as reactor and nuclear bomb fuel.

Proliferation of the material is a rising concern throughout the world. Iraq and North Korea were suspected of developing weapons programs.

Other countries, including the United States, have nearly ceased using plutonium as a fuel because natural uranium has proved far more economical and safe. One of the last holdouts, France, suspended operations of its fast- breeder Superphoenix reactor on Monday.

Plutonium is ″reprocessed″ from spent uranium fuel rods in nuclear power plants.

The U.S. government retains informal veto power over the shipments since most of Japan’s uranium fuel was originally bought from America. Both the Pentagon and State Department have expressed a willingness to permit shipments.

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