Update: Nov. 16, 2015 -- Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. announced that its new plutonium factory at Rokkasho might not operate until Sept. 2018, due to a need for additional safety upgrades and more inspections by regulators.
ROKKASHO, Japan — Sporting turquoise-striped walls and massive steel cooling towers, the new industrial complex rising from bluffs astride the Pacific Ocean here looks like it might produce consumer electronics or bath salts.
But in reality it is one of the world’s newest, largest, and most controversial production plants for a nuclear explosive.
The factory’s private owners said three months ago that after several decades of construction, it will be ready to open in October, as part of a government-supported effort to create special fuel for the country’s future nuclear power plants.
Japan’s leaders affirmed last month they intend to proceed with that effort, a decision that has stoked anxiety in East Asia and set off alarms among Western experts who worry about the spread of nuclear weapons technology — including some inside the Obama administration.
Once it is running, the plant will produce thousands of gallon-sized steel canisters containing a flour-like mixture of uranium and plutonium, enough in theory to provide the building blocks for a huge nuclear arsenal.
Publicly, the United States has said little about Japan’s plans to enlarge its already substantial hoard of plutonium. Washington formally granted Japan the unlimited right to use U.S. technology and nuclear feedstock for the plant during the Reagan administration. Now some of that materiel is to be returned, under a deal to be announced later this month at a U.S.-led international summit in the Netherlands promoting the security of nuclear materials that can be used as explosives.
It all sounds calm and cordial. But since Obama was first elected, Washington has been lobbying furiously behind the scenes, trying to persuade Japan that terrorists might regard Rokkasho’s new stockpile of plutonium as an irresistible target — and to convince Japanese officials they should better protect this dangerous raw material.
Specifically, U.S. officials have struggled, without success so far, to persuade Japan to create a more capable security force at the plant than the white-gloved, unarmed guards and small police unit stationed here now. They also have been trying to persuade the privacy-minded Japanese to undertake stringent background checks for the 2,400 workers employed here.
It’s been a hard sell for Washington, according to experts and officials in both countries familiar with the diplomatic dialogue. With U.S. prodding, Japan has gradually heightened security at Rokkasho and other nuclear sites, but officials in Washington say they remain worried that the improvements are too slow and incremental.
The dialogue highlights a vast gulf in the two countries’ security cultures. Japan has been far less ready than the United States to imagine and prepare for nuclear-related disasters; its federal agencies have deferred to state and utility officials on safety and security issues; and its political leaders have shown little interest in cooperating with U.S. and other Western experts to improve its standards.
Some Japanese officials have told their American counterparts that the homogenous, pacifist nature of their society makes nuclear conspiracies unlikely — a conclusion that U.S. officials and independent experts categorically reject. Other Japanese officials have insisted that in a nation where gun ownership is rare and privacy rights are zealously guarded, armed guards and background checks are unacceptable at even at the riskiest sites.
“It is a system that relies heavily on the expectation that everyone will do what they are expected to do,” said a senior Obama administration official, who asked not to be named while speaking about a sensitive diplomatic issue. As a result, “the stuff we would kind of expect to see” at a dangerous nuclear facility “is not there.”
A consortium of electric utilities, Japan Nuclear Fuels Limited, has spent 22 years building the plant, the cornerstone of a plan to build the world’s first energy system based on plutonium-powered, fast breeder reactors. (Breeder reactors — a technology considered and rejected in the United States more than 30 years ago — are so named because they can produce more plutonium than they consume.) Japanese consumers are paying the $22 billion bill for its construction through a surcharge on their electric bills.
When the Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Center at Rokkasho is operating at full capacity, it’s supposed to produce eight metric tons of plutonium annually. That’s enough in theory for a country like Japan to make an estimated 2,600 nuclear weapons, each with the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT.
When the Rokkasho plant was conceived, Japan believed plutonium-burning reactors would make the island nation energy independent. The facility was embraced as a way to convert nuclear wastes into fuel on a crowded archipelago rocked by violent earthquakes, dotted with active volcanoes, and lashed by tsunamis and typhoons.
Critics of the plant point out, however, that Japan has no urgent need for a single kilogram of the plutonium the plant will produce.