TED Case Studies

Japan Plutonium Imports (JAPANPL)



CASE NAME: Japan Plutonium Imports

I. Identification

1. The Issue

In the fall of 1992, one ton of plutonium began its journey by sea from France to Japan. International interest in the plutonium shipment, as well as concern regarding Japan's use of plutonium, became an item of public and policy debate in Japan and around the world. Japan must import virtually all its energy, with oil the main source. After several crises in the Middle East, Japan has tried to diversify its energy production potential through nuclear power. To this end, Japan has imported uranium and spent waste from France that can be reprocessed for use in Japanese nuclear facilities. However, such shipments pass through many oceans, and the threat of an accident has caused alarm in many countries.

2. Description

Japan depends on foreign sources for over 80 percent of its energy needs and imports close to 99.7 percent of its domestically consumed crude oil. Japan strives to efficiently use uranium resources and has undertaken the goal of establishing a nuclear fuel recycling program. This program uses spent fuel from nuclear power plants and by reprocessing, plutonium is recovered for use as nuclear fuel.

Japan continues to use plutonium because there is no guarantee of a stable supply of low-price uranium in the future. The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) stated in its 1990 annual report that known resources would not be adequate to sustain production capability to cover projected demand for uranium after the year 2005. The U.S. Department of Energy claims that 500 tons of highly enriched uranium is expected to remain after the dismantling of Soviet/Russian nuclear weapons. Used as nuclear reactor fuel, this alone would supply world demand for nuclear fuel for two of three years. Japan argues that a nuclear recycling program would help preserve valuable resources by using the plutonium recovered from unusable uranium which would otherwise be disposed of as nuclear waste.

Japan also maintains that nuclear power is a clean source of energy and does not spur acid rain or global warming. The government asserts that the use of nuclear energy is vital to reduce emissions based on the Framework Convention on Climate Change signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In addition, recycling nuclear fuel and recovering plutonium from spent fuel cuts down on nuclear waste. There also is an argument that solidification of the waste through reprocessing may shorten the length of time the material is a radioactivity threat.

Japan states its adherence to the three non-nuclear principles of not possessing, producing, or allowing nuclear weapons within its territory. Precise measures have been taken so that all research and development of nuclear energy is limited to peaceful purposes. Japan has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has resolved full-scope safe guard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The United States has a great deal of influence regarding Japan's use of plutonium because the majority of Japan's plutonium is enriched in the United States. Thus, the United States has supported Japan's plans with regards to plutonium.

In 1991, the Advisory Committee on Nuclear Fuel Recycling of the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission issued a report on the projected supply and demand of plutonium. The report stated that the collective demand of plutonium by the year 2010 will be almost 90 tons. Japan's policy is to keep only the amount of plutonium required for running stocks on hand.

Japan insists that precautionary and protective measures have been implemented to shield the plutonium during shipment. The United States has cooperated and assisted Japan in the transport plan and has expressed satisfaction with the result. The plutonium is intended to reload a prototype reactor known as Monju. Monju is now undergoing comprehensive testing, but Japan does not have an adequate supply of plutonium. Thus, the shipment from France will provide enough plutonium to successfully re-load fuel for Monju. France reprocesses the spent fuel from Japan's electric power companies. Long-term reprocessing contracts have been completed and approximately 30 tons of plutonium will be recovered and transported to Japan.

The transport vessel is among those that have safely carried over 5,000 tons of spent fuel from Japan to Europe on over 100 voyages. It is equipped with an independent communications system and possesses a credible record of safe transport. The plutonium will be encased in casks meeting the highest international safety standards. Other issues were taken into consideration, including natural conditions, political and social situations, and marine transport information. Additional safety measures consist of a satellite navigation system and anti- collision radar to prevent accidents at sea. An escort vessel will accompany the plutonium shipment and monitor the surrounding area.

Japan also insists that the ship s reinforced double-hulled and double-bottomed structure will prevent it from sinking in the unlikely event of a collision or grounding. Fire detection and suppression on board is based on international standards. All efforts possible will be made to guard against any attempt to steal the material or to interfere with the transport. An escort vessel of Japan's Maritime Safety Agency will accompany the plutonium. In addition, the vessel's cargo crane and the storage hatches will be rendered inoperable. The operation center will have constant supervision and armed guards will be aboard the ship at all times. These measures exceed the requirements of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the guidelines of the IAEA.

The transport route was not publicly announced, to deprive would-be terrorists or hijackers of easy information. Transport routes are selected immediately prior to the vessel's departure and take into consideration geographic conditions and the political and social situations of the coastal areas. In general, the route will not include areas with severe natural conditions and regions of political or social instability.

In the event of a large-scale illness or a mechanical problem on board, emergency response measures have been determined. They include means of informing land-based authorities and a response plan for those on board. In the event of an emergency port call, proper procedures will be taken according to the domestic rules and regulations of the host country.

Japan has conferred with the governments of the United States and France. Both nations have expressed satisfaction with the precautions taken to date. Japan has also revealed the implications of this shipment to more than 30 governments through diplomatic channels.

Due to the ship's reinforced hull and the design of the holding casks, accidents are not expected to leak nuclear materials into the ocean or the air. Further, the amounts of plutonium placed in each cask are limited to prevent the achievement of critical mass, which could cause an explosion.

According to Japan's Law on Compensation for Nuclear Damages, if nuclear harm did occur, the Japanese Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation would assume no-fault and unlimited liability. Insurance has been secured to cover these circumstances.

The Japanese Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation has distributed a 10-minute video cartoon designed to counteract negative feelings in Japan about nuclear power. The cartoon features "Pluto Boy", replete with a helmet bearing the letters "Pu", the chemical symbol for plutonium. Pluto Boy declares that making a bomb out of plutonium is difficult and that it does not cause cancer -- both false assertions. Pluto Boy then states that water supplies are safe from contamination by the element because plutonium is heavy and would sink to the bottom of a water tank or source. For its inaccuracies, the video has been criticized by the Nuclear Control Institute, Greenpeace International and U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.

Though the corporation also boasts of a record of safe operation for more than 25 years, it should be noted that in 1996 an accident occured at the controversial atomic reactor site at Monju creating grave concern over Japan's nuclear industry. Shigeo Nishimura (deputy general manager of the state-owned Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation)is alleged to have tried to cover up the details of the accident by implicating his superiors to suppress the details. After he got all of the superiors to agree he leaped to his death from a Tokyo hotel window.

3. Related Cases

Sea Pollution Specific





Russia Nuclear Trade General

Russia Nuclear Exports

Keyword Clusters

(1): Trans-boundary = YES

(2): Bio-geography = OCEAN

(3): Environmental Problem = Pollution Sea [POLS]

4. Draft Author:

Amy Craft, Mark Watson, Alyssa Bleck (July, 1996)

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status:

DISagreement and COMPlete

6. Forum and Scope:


The case directly involves the Japanese Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation. Although there are many other organizations involved in this case, such as Greenpeace and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the corporation is responsible for the protection of the transport. The United States and others probably are not enthusiastic about the shipments. "U.S. policy is to discourage the use of plutonium in commercial power plants because in addition to being highly toxic, it increases the global risk of nuclear proliferation." However, such U.S. policy has not been pressed on friends such as Japan.

7. Decision Breadth:

3 (Japan, France and USA)

The number of parties directly involved in this case is three: Japan, France, and the United States. However, as noted earlier, the issue of nuclear reactors is a global concern.

8. Legal Standing:


III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: GLOBAL

b. Geographic Site: INDIA

c. Geographic Impact: JAPAN

The geographic domain in this case is the Indian Ocean, which accounts for a large portion of the journey from France to Japan. It may also cross the following bodies of water: Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean. However, certain affected nations were informed of the shipment by the Japanese government. These 30 nations are in Southeast Asia, Africa, South America and the Pacific region (see KHAIN case).

10. Sub-National Factors:


11. Type of Habitat:


The habitat covers the many sea and oceans through which the ship carrying the plutonium will pass.

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure:


13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:


14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: YES, Plutonium

b. Indirectly Related to Product: NO

c. Not Related to Product: NO

d. Related to Process: YES Pollution Sea [POLS]

This regulation may cause other measures to be established on other forms of nuclear energy. Finally, licensing relates to the process of transportation of plutonium. This specific measure would cause a great adjustment in the shipment transport.

15. Trade Product Identification:


Plutonium is an intermediate product and categorized by the Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) schedule as uranium enriched in U235 and its compounds; plutonium and its compounds; alloys, dispersions, ceramic products, and mixtures containing uranium enriched in U235, plutonium, or compounds of these products. The category given to this division in the Harmonized system is 2844.20; in the Standard International Trade Classification (SITC), it is 525.13.

16. Economic Data

In 1989, Japan had a 99.7 percent dependence on imported petroleum. On the oil dependency scale, France followed with 95.9 percent, the former West Germany 95.0 percent, Italy 94.9 percent, the United States 44.8 percent, and the United Kingdom a negative 16 percent (it is an overall exporter).

17. Impact of Trade Restriction:


18. Industry Sector:


19. Exporters and Importers:


V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type:

Pollution Sea [POLS]

The problem is one of pollution concentration, specifically plutonium. In a shipment such as Japan's, this could affect the air and land, but most importantly the oceans.

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

Name: MANY

Type: MANY

Diversity: MANY

22. Resource Impact and Effect:

HIGH and PRODuct

One accident could have catastrophic effects on the ocean and could easily be spread over an enormous area.

23. Urgency of Problem:

SHORT and hundreds of years

The plutonium would be dangerous for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

24. Substitutes:

Bio-degradable [BIODG] products

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture:


Culture is not an issue but propaganda is. As noted, Japan's Nuclear Fuel development Agency recently unveiled a promotional comparing featuring "Mr. Pluto". Mr. Pluto is featured in a video called "The Story of Plutonium: That Dependable Fellow, Mr. Plutonium." The program coincides with the decision to import 20 tons of French plutonium, and was met by opposition from a variety of environmental groups in Japan. Japan's record of being the only country where nuclear weaponry has been deployed adds another ethical complication.

26. Trans-Boundary Issues:


The route of the ship passes near many countries and any accident would certainly drift into their territorial waters and shores.

27. Rights:


28. Relevant Literature

Associated Press. "Mr. Pluto Touts Plutonium's Benefits. January 20, 1994.

Iwase, The Embassy of Japan. Amy Craft interview with Science division representative on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 1992.

Jeziersk, Henryk. "Chernobyl Time Bomb." World Press Review (March 1992): 52.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan. Plutonium: A Renewable Source of Energy (November 1992).

"Plutonium Ship Shakes Off Greenpeace." Washington Post (December 2, 1992): 37.

"Pluto Boy's Mission: Soften the Reaction." Washington Post (March 7, 1994): A11.

Whymart, Robert. "Chernobyl at Sea Feared as Plutonium Ship Sails." Financial Times (October 20, 1992).

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