Nuclear Nonproliferation

Japan's Shipment of Plutonium Raises Concerns About Reprocessing Gao ID: RCED-93-154 June 14, 1993

In January 1993, the Japanese ship Akatsuki Maru, along with an armed escort vessel, completed a 2-month voyage during which it transported 1.7 tons of plutonium oxide from France to Japan. Although the plutonium had been reprocessed at a French facility, it was originally obtained from the United States in the form of spent nuclear fuel. The Japanese sought the plutonium to generate commercial nuclear power. Under a 1988 agreement between Japan and the United States, Japan is required to ensure the physical security and safety of such shipments. This report discusses the physical security and safety of the Akatsuki Maru shipment, as well as any costs to the United States arising from it. In addition, the report discusses broader issues raised by the shipment, including concerns about reprocessing and the resulting growth in world plutonium stocks. Finally, the report discusses the implications of the 1988 agreement for future U.S. nuclear agreements.

GAO found that: (1) the 1988 agreement required Japan to meet certain security and safety conditions for plutonium shipments of U.S. origin, including submitting to the United States a travel plan detailing transportation arrangements, threat assessments, physical security risks, and contingency plans; (2) the United States has the authority to halt plutonium shipments only if it determines that the transfer poses a national security threat and will significantly increase the risk of nuclear proliferation; (3) the United States issued a letter of cooperation and assistance after six U.S. agencies reviewed the Japanese transportation plan and determined that it met the agreement's requirements; (4) the plutonium transport ship met or exceeded international standards for transporting nuclear materials; (5) the costs for monitoring the shipment's progress were minimal, since no equipment was deployed to support the shipment; (6) although the United States and Japan coordinated the shipment's transportation plan, negotiated safety improvements, and jointly monitored the ship's location, U.S. officials raised concerns over the shipment's vulnerability to terrorist attacks and safety, and its effect on future nuclear proliferation; (7) although the United States discourages reprocessing activities in other countries, it was willing to assist non-Western countries in developing alternative nuclear technologies; and (8) the 1988 agreement with Japan could impact future U.S. nuclear agreements by setting a precedent through which other countries are allowed to reprocess nuclear materials of U.S. origin and limiting Congress' ability to review and oversee other countries' nuclear reprocessing and transportation activities.


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