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Study urges Japan to avoid undue reliance on plutonium

Three MIT researchers have completed a study to explain the apprehension outside Japan caused by that nation's plans for a "plutonium economy."

The report, "International Responses to Japanese Plutonium Programs," was written by Professor Eugene Skolnikoff of the MIT Department of Political Science; Dr. Tatsujiro Suzuki, research associate in MIT's Center for International Studies (CIS); and Professor Kenneth A. Oye, CIS director. The study was carried out under the auspices of the center.

The authors note that the Japanese nuclear power program has long included an extensive commitment to use plutonium removed from the spent fuel of light-water reactors for recycling or as fuel for breeder reactors. The plans are approaching commercialization as construction of a major reprocessing plant at Rokkasho has begun.

The stated goal is to derive maximum energy from uranium, but concerns have been raised outside Japan about proliferation risks, safety and possible diversion for terrorist purposes. The authors point out in particular that "proceeding with commercial-scale plutonium programs increases the likelihood that other countries will follow the Japanese example, perhaps with less physical security against theft by subnational groups or diversion for weapons use." The authors note that "long-term R&D intended to maintain technology options. would not raise similar concerns."

The international reaction is fueled by the unconvincing nature of the official rationales for the program in a context in which concerns over proliferation, safety and terrorism are considered by many to be of paramount importance. The authors state that the energy security, economic and environmental benefits claimed for the program by Japan do not appear to others to justify the major commitments that have been made.

They cite, as one of the explanations for continuation of the programs in the face of inadequate justification, a number of "background factors, found in one form or other in all countries," including "local politics, inertia of large organizations, limited transparency of the policy process, industrial interests and cultural considerations." The authors note that these factors, which are major drivers of the programs, are little appreciated outside Japan.

The researchers' primary recommendations to mitigate international concerns are to:

  • Diversify aspects of the fuel-cycle program to avoid undue reliance on plutonium.
  • Emphasize long-term R&D to maintain a technology option.
  • Avoid premature commercialization of plutonium.
  • Open further the policy process.
  • Enhance international confidence-building measures.
  • Provide vigorous support for non-proliferation.
  • Discourage commercial plutonium programs in other countries.

The project received partial funding from the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation of Japan.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 13, 1995.

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