A British ship in Japan with plutonium is set to transport its cargo to the U.S. for storage under a bilateral agreement. The shipment comes ahead of a nuclear summit in Washington to be held later this month aimed at stepping up non-proliferation efforts.
The plutonium is enough to make 6,000 atomic bombs. Japanese officials refused to confirm details, citing security reasons. There are actually two British ships at the site to transport the cargo from eastern Japan, according to Washington Post.
The vessels arrived at the coastal village of Tokai, northeast of Tokyo, home to the country’s main nuclear research facility. It will take several hours to load the casks onto the vessels, both fitted with naval guns and other protection.
The plutonium in Japan on the British ships will be carried out safely. Pacific Egret and Pacific Heron, both operated by Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd., will take the 730 pounds of plutonium to the Savannah River Site, a U.S. government facility in South Carolina under a pledge made by Japan in 2014. The plutonium, mostly from the U.S. and some from France originally, had been used for research purposes.
The Japan plutonium stockpile and its fuel-reprocessing ambitions to use plutonium as fuel for power generation have been a source of international security concerns.
Japan has accumulated a massive stockpile of plutonium — 11 metric tons in Japan and another 36 tons that have been reprocessed in Britain and France and are waiting to be returned to Japan — enough to make nearly 6,000 atomic bombs.
The latest shipment comes just ahead of a nuclear security summit in Washington later this month, and is seen as a step to showcase both countries’ nuclear non-proliferation efforts.
Washington has increasingly voiced concerns about the nuclear spent-fuel-reprocessing plans by Japan and China to produce plutonium for energy generation, a technology South Korea also wants to acquire, saying they pose security and proliferation risks.
Japan began building a major reprocessing plant with French state-owned company Areva in the early 1990s. The trouble-plagued project has been delayed ever since, and in November its opening was postponed until 2018 to allow for more safety upgrades and inspections.
Experts say launching the Rokkasho reprocessing plant would not ease the situation, because Japan has little hope of achieving a spent fuel recycling program.
As the British ship in Japan with plutonium makes it way out to sea, there are other changes being made in the country. Japan’s plutonium-burning fast breeder reactor Monju, suspended for more than 20 years, is now on the verge of being closed due to poor safety records and technical problems, while optional plans to burn uranium-plutonium mixtures of MOX fuel in conventional reactors have been delayed since the Fukushima crisis. Only two of Japan’s 43 workable reactors are currently online.