WASHINGTON — A generation after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the world is rediscovering the attractions of nuclear power to curb the warming pollution of carbon fuels. And so a new industry focused on plutonium-based nuclear fuel has begun to take shape in the far reaches of Asia, with ambitions to spread elsewhere — and some frightening implications, if Thomas Cochran is correct.
A Washington-based physicist and nuclear contrarian, Cochran helped kill a vast plutonium-based nuclear industrial complex back in the 1970s, and now he’s at it again — lecturing at symposia, standing up at official meetings, and confronting nuclear industry representatives with warnings about how commercializing plutonium will put the public at enormous risk.
Where the story ends isn’t clear. But the stakes are large.
The impetus for Cochran’s urgent new campaign — supported by a growing cadre of arms control and proliferation experts — is a seemingly puzzling decision by Japan to ready a new $22 billion plutonium production plant for operation as early as October.
The plant will provide fuel for scores of special reactors resembling those canceled in America a generation ago. Critics of the Japanese project worry that its completion in just a few months will create a crucial beachhead for longtime nuclear advocates who claim that plutonium, a sparkplug of nuclear weapons, can provide a promising civilian path to carbon-free energy.
According to its builders, the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility, which has been undergoing testing since 2006, will be capable of churning out 96 tons of plutonium metal in the next dozen years, an amount greater than all the stocks that remain in the United States as a legacy of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. Rokkasho would be the fifth-largest such facility in the world, but the only one in a country without nuclear weapons.
The metal is to be burned by Japanese utilities in dozens of fast breeder reactors, so named because they have the capability to both consume and produce plutonium. The ambition is to make Japan, a craggy, energy-starved island, nearly self-sufficient in generating electrical power.
But there is a hitch, Cochran and his allies say. A big one.
A lump of plutonium weighing 6.6 pounds — roughly the size of a grapefruit — is enough to make a nuclear weapon with an explosive power of 1 kiloton, or 1,000 tons, of TNT. If the Japanese plan goes forward, the island nation in theory would in a year have plutonium sufficient to build around 2,600 bombs, or enough to compose the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.
Japan has renounced any desire to make nuclear weapons, but Cochran and others worry that by creating a huge plutonium stockpile — and shuttling it all over the country — the utilities there will be creating a tempting, perhaps irresistible, target for nuclear terrorists.
And though Japan is perhaps closest to finishing such a massive plutonium factory, its ambitions are far from unique.
Iran is building a research reactor near the western city of Arak capable of producing enough spent fuel to make about 20 pounds of high-grade plutonium a year — the equivalent of nearly three bombs a year. Tehran says nothing in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prevents it from acquiring peaceful nuclear technology, but its plans have provoked widespread Western condemnation and are the focus of continuing international negotiations.