Key findings:

  • Japan will finish a $22-billion plutonium factory in October. In a single year, this plant in Rokkasho could produce enough of the nuclear explosive to make 2,600 bombs.
  • Japan says it needs the material to fuel existing or future nuclear power plants, though all such plants are now shuttered and none will be able to burn the plutonium for many years.
  • In the next 12 years, Japan will likely accumulate more plutonium than the United States has left over from the Cold War.
  • Some nuclear nonproliferation experts say that due to the large production capacity of the Japanese factory, it would be like a big-box store for would-be nuclear terrorists. Its product will be extremely hard to keep track of, and once a coke-can sized quantity of plutonium is stolen, it could not be tracked.
  • The United States has spent more than $850 million on radiation monitoring systems at foreign ports, in anticipation that some plutonium could eventually leak from such factories. But the systems are widely considered ineffective.
  • Thomas Cochran, a longtime critic of plutonium production, has successfully demonstrated that radioactive containers can be easily smuggled past U.S. borders.