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The German Row on Nuclear Reprocessing Obscures the Real Danger - Japan




Feb. 3, 1999

LONDON- The nuclear reprocessing issue is not going to disappear off the political map even though German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder last week overrode his environment minister and postponed legislation that would have led to a quick ending of the shipping of nuclear waste to reprocessing plants in Britain and France and also a fairly rapid closing of the country's 19 nuclear power plants.

The nuclear industry is a big and powerful lobby and, as the debate over compensation for broken contracts demonstrates, vast sums are at stake. But as the unanswered questions mount on both the issues of health and military security it can be only a matter of time before all rational governments introduce the kind of radical steps the German government initially announced. Indeed, Schroeder, despite his intervention on the side of delay, is committed to end the export of radioactive waste and the subsequent reprocessing within a handful of years. And Germany will also follow Sweden, Spain and Italy into steadily decommissioning its nuclear reactors.

The rank and file Greens may be throwing up their hands in anger at Schroeder's intervention but, at least, there is no doubting that the German government is committed to a transition. This is in sharp contrast to the government of Japan whose intention to ship another dangerous load of 450 kilos of reprocessed fuel over the high seas from Britain and France to Japan was revealed by Greenpeace last week. The Japanese have done this before, once in 1992 and once in 1995. Each time there was an almighty row and each time they went ahead, waited a few years for the public to forget about it, and then did it again. The question posed seven years ago is still apposite: why on earth is the Japanese government allowing it? Why is it insisting on moving from one part of the globe to another enough plutonium to make up to 56 nuclear weapons which, if they chose, the Japanese could construct in a mere one to three weeks?

The long-standing rationale has been that it is fuel for a breeder reactor, the power plant that, once operational, can survive without outside refuelling. To develop a commercial breeder reactor will probably take another 30 to 40 years. Most countries that once experimented with this concept have now cooled on it, partly because of the environmental dangers, partly because Uranium, the basic fuel of ordinary reactors, is proving to be less scarce and cheaper than earlier forecasts suggested and, not least, there is now an abundance of Russian plutonium from its closed-down nuclear bomb factories, available to western users for their civilian power plants as an alternative fuel to uranium.

The Japanese government not only blithely insists its goal is a breeder reactor but is so unplugged into the real world that this time, unlike last, it is not going to use an armed escort for the plutonium-laden ship. It is rather ironic that while western capitals worry themselves silly about rogue plutonium being smuggled out of Russia into Iraq or Iran they seem almost nonchalant about this extraordinarily vulnerable ship.

So why are the Japanese doing it? A number of strategists have suggested that Japan's real motivation, recessed and inarticulated in political debate though it be, is to be able, if the Asian geopolitical balance goes badly askew, to develop its own nuclear weapons to deter North Korea and China.

This confounds notions of Japan as a firm pacifist-inclined nation whose public opinion was stamped by Hiroshima. Indeed, the government had to cajole Japanese power companies into the plutonium deal. But the tough, unsentimental men in Japan, who are taking these nuclear decisions today, are looking twenty years ahead, to a time when a new generation may have another viewpoint and the geopolitics of the east may be differently arranged.

When challenged the Japanese government has always been able to point to the Germans who, albeit over a shorter, safer distance, do the same thing. As did Japan, when contracts were first signed for reprocessing, Germany and other European countries said the goal was fuel for future breeder reactors. Now the only argument they have is to say the plutonium end product can also be used as fuel in conventional nuclear reactors. The weakness of that defense is that besides the danger that one day the plutonium could be diverted to military use (or stolen) is that the very act of reprocessing generates volumes of waste far exceeding those of the original spent fuel. In order to minimise the amount of waste, Britain and France systematically pour massive quantities of radioactivity into the sea and air.

This is why, pressured though he is by a powerful nuclear industry, Chancellor Schroeder does not suggest for a second that the decision to close down the country's nuclear power plants and end reprocessing is anything but briefly delayed. Merely, that enough time is being given to make it possible for the industry to develop its own storage sites for spent fuel.

This breathing space should be used not just by the Germans but the Japanese too. (America, since Jimmy Carter's day, has abjured civilian reprocessing.) If the western nations want to speak with a clear voice to the rest of the world about the dangers of a plutonium economy they have to clean house at home. The asymmetry of nuclear obligation between the industrialised countries and the rest is no longer viable. If they cannot forgo policies that lead to totally unnecessary risk, why should anyone else?


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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