Three years after Fukushima, Japanese officials insist their nuclear facilities are safe. They're not.
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 nuclear explosives.
After more than two decades of construction, the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility will be ready to open in October 2014, as part of a government-supported effort to create special fuel for the country's future nuclear power plants.
Once completed, it will be capable of churning out 96 tons of plutonium metal in the next dozen years, an amount greater than all the stocks that remain in the United States as a legacy of the Cold War's nuclear arms race. Rokkasho will become the fifth largest such facility in the world, but the only one in a country without nuclear weapons.
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 Ronald Reagan's 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 President Barack Obama was first elected, Washington has been lobbying furiously behind the scenes, trying to convince Japan that terrorists might regard Rokkasho's new stockpile of plutonium as an irresistible target -- and to persuade Japanese officials they should better protect this dangerous raw material.
That is to say, once the facility is operating at full capacity, it's supposed to produce 8 metric tons of plutonium annually. In theory, that's enough to create an estimated 2,600 nuclear weapons, each with the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT. A lump of the flour-like mixture, weighing less than 7 pounds -- enough to make a weapon -- is the size of a grapefruit.
A consortium of electric utilities, Japan Nuclear Fuel 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 (a technology the United States rejected more than 30 years ago because the machines produce more plutonium than they consume).
Japanese consumers are footing the $22 billion bill for the facility's construction through a surcharge on their electric bills.
In February 2014, Japan's leaders said that despite an increased fear of nuclear energy in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and growing worries about the enormous costs of the plutonium program, they will proceed with the reprocessing facility.
The decision has stoked anxiety in East Asia and set off alarms among Western experts, including some inside the Obama administration, who worry that even an 8-fluid-ounce thermos full of the metal in the wrong hands could produce a devastating terrorist attack.
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.
But critics argue that Japan has no urgent need for a single kilogram of plutonium.
Already, Japan has 9.3 metric tons of plutonium stored at Rokkasho and nine other sites in the island nation, along with around 35 tons of plutonium stored in France and the United Kingdom. Altogether, Japan has the fifth-largest plutonium stockpile of any country, representing 9 percent of the world's stocks under civilian control.
Once Rokkasho opens, the size of this stockpile could easily double in less than six years. The government forecasts that Japan is at least 20 years from completing the first of the commercial reactors designed to burn the plutonium that Rokkasho will produce.
Originally, the Japanese government's plan was to burn a mixture of Rokkasho's plutonium and uranium in a third of Japan's 48 operable light-water power reactors. But after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, all of those reactors have been closed. And if they are reopened -- perhaps beginning later this year -- the communities that host them may be wary of letting the reactors burn plutonium-laced fuel, Japanese political analysts say.
Ignorance Is bliss
The dialogue between the United States and Japan 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 American and other Western experts to improve its standards.
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 of the 2,400 workers employed here.
It has been a hard sell for Washington. 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.
"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 to remain anonymous. As a result, "the stuff we would kind of expect to see" at a dangerous nuclear facility "is not there."
After a U.S. Embassy science officer witnessed a security drill in 2006 at the Mihama nuclear power plant along Japan's northern shoreline, the officer sent a classified cable back to the State Department noting the typical police presence: "a lightly armored police vehicle with up to six police officers -- some of them fast asleep." The scripted drill included 2,000 participants, including local residents, industry officials, members of the Self-Defense Forces, and some police.
The diplomat concluded Mihama's security system had shortcomings, noting that a local nuclear safety official admitted "that his office had no contact with the local police on plant security issues."
This sardonic observation, which appeared in a cable published in 2011 by WikiLeaks, came after years of prodding by Washington for tougher security around Japan's nuclear installations. The U.S. campaign was inspired partly by America's discovery in 2002 that the 9/11 attackers had initially considered a plan to crash planes into U.S. nuclear power plants.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission responded by ordering U.S. plants to improve physical security, tighten access, improve guard training, and compose new emergency response plans. Security forces grew by 60 percent, to about 9,000 officers, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Washington also pressed others, including France, Britain, Russia, Japan, and China, to take a similar get-tough approach.
But in Japan, at least, there was resistance.
Paul Dickman, a former U.S. Energy Department official and chief of staff to the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President George W. Bush, says that when he asked a Tokyo Electric Power Co. official after 9/11 why the company hadn't toughened security measures faster at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the world's largest nuclear power station, he was surprised by the reply.
"We are in the process of making those changes, but we don't want to do them all at once because we don't want people to think that we have been operating them unsafely in the past," the official said, according to Dickman.
Two years later, when U.S. chargé d'affaires Joseph Donovan expressed his own, broader concerns to two deputy safety directors at Japan's Science and Technology Ministry, they responded that the contract guard forces at Japan's nuclear facilities are "prevented by law from carrying weapons," according to a confidential cable Donovan sent to Washington.
When he specifically challenged the absence of armed guards at a Japanese research center stocked with plutonium and weapons-grade uranium, the officials "responded that an assessment of local needs and resources had indicated that there was not a sufficient threat to justify armed police," according to the cable, also published by WikiLeaks.
The deputies said further that background checks for plant workers were unconstitutional and that the government wanted "to avoid raising what is a deeply sensitive privacy issue for Japanese society." But they also said some checks might be going on "unofficially."
The situation has hardly improved since then, the senior Obama administration official said in a recent interview, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of such conversations. The devastating accident at the Fukushima power plant showed, he said, that police and lightly armed Japanese Coast Guard forces play a secondary role in security and safety emergencies to private, unarmed security guards. The Japanese government, he said, is heavily dependent on what the utilities decide to do.
The official added that though Japan has recently staged counterterror exercises at nuclear plants, including Rokkasho, and allowed some Americans to watch, "they remain very heavily scripted." The aim is not to embarrass anyone. "There is great sensitivity to that," the official said.
John Thomas Schieffer, the U.S. ambassador to Japan from 2005 to 2009, said Japan's approach to nuclear security can be explained partly by its history. During World War II, the Imperial government's huge domestic intelligence apparatus -- including the notorious Military Police Corps -- kept a close watch on all Japanese citizens.
"They didn't want to return to the sort of police state they had during the war," Schieffer said. Also, "the Japanese had a hard time in the beginning conceptualizing that somebody would want to do something in Japan that would result in a loss of life."
Another former State Department official who served in Tokyo in the 2000s noted that "their view was that they had everything under control. They lived on an island. They had very few enemies. They were just looking at this from an entirely different perspective than us."
A Pacifist Culture?
Since the 9/11 attacks in the United States, every nuclear power station in the country has been required to conduct mock "force-on-force" exercises involving a team of guards pitted against a team playing the role of terrorists. The attackers are assumed to be suicidal, highly trained, armed with explosives and automatic weapons, and bent on causing the release of deadly fallout.
The Japanese conduct no such exercises, explaining that such an attack is improbable in their country.
Terrorists, of course, have used truck bombs to devastating effect in Grozny, Nairobi, Baghdad, and Oklahoma City. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said 33 years ago that a large truck bomb directed against a nuclear reactor in an urban area could kill 130,000 people. The threat was one of just four specifically mentioned -- along with boat bombs, insider thefts, and cyberattacks -- by the NRC's director of preparedness and response, in an August 2013 posting about security issues raised by the Fukushima accident.
Assaults on nuclear facilities are rare, but not unknown. According to a 2013 report by Alan Kuperman, a nuclear proliferation expert at the University of Texas, Austin, intruders have attempted to gain access to -- or blow up -- reactors or other nuclear facilities in Russia, South Africa, Lithuania, South Korea, and elsewhere.
The gnomic guru of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, former street-corner preacher Shoko Asahara, was obsessed with acquiring an atomic weapon, and his followers traveled to Russia to buy them and recruit former Soviet weapons scientists. Investigators have reported that the group was prepared to pay as much as $15 million for a warhead. In 1993, the group bought a half-a-million-acre sheep ranch in Australia, where 25 of Asahara's followers tried to mine uranium to fuel a bomb.
When those schemes failed, Asahara turned to home-brewed biological and chemical weapons, ultimately ordering a sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 that killed 13 people and injured 6,000 others. He is currently in prison awaiting execution.
Even after the arrest of its leadership, remnants of Aum Shinrikyo studied Japan's nuclear industry. Tokyo police in March 2000 said Aum Shinrikyo-affiliated hackers had obtained schedules of nuclear fuel deliveries, studied the cooling system at Japan's plutonium-fueled Monju prototype fast breeder reactor, and built dossiers on 75 Japanese researchers doing nuclear-related work.
A July 2011 report co-authored by Richard Danzig, former U.N. Navy secretary and a current member of Obama's four-member Intelligence Advisory Board, found that "police pursuit of Aum was remarkably lax." The cult was shielded from close scrutiny by Japanese privacy and religious-freedom protections, as well as a conviction by authorities that it was a collection of harmless cranks.
Japan has resisted sharing classified information about nuclear threats with the United States, partly out of concern that doing so might weaken public support for nuclear power, according to another U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. This changed in December 2013, when a law giving the government sweeping powers to classify information was passed at the insistence of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But it hasn't quelled U.S. concerns.
"History so far hasn't proven them wrong," said the senior Obama administration official. "But you have to ask, what level of risk are you willing to accept?" The closer Rokkasho is to opening, the more urgent the question becomes.
The View at the Plant
At the entrance to each building where radioactive materials are kept, unarmed guards issue badges and direct visitors through radiation sensors. If the guards and the police are outmanned or outgunned, plant officials said, they can summon reinforcements, including the Coast Guard, officials said. But the first line of defense is the unarmed security force.
Nuclear engineer Tomonori Iwamoto, who worked as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq and serves as director of Rokkasho's Nuclear Security and Safeguards Division, said while escorting two reporters around the facility that the most sensitive structures have thickly reinforced concrete roofs to protect them against an attack from the sky. A nearby U.S. air base, at Misawa, has a Patriot anti-missile battery, he noted.
But the perimeter control system hasn't always worked as designed. A Japan Nuclear Fuel internal report details an Aug. 7, 2009, incident in which security guards allowed a group of construction workers to enter a storage facility for lethally radioactive, high-level wastes without proper authorization. There were two prosaic problems, according to the report, which was obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. One was "a lot of debating and chatter" at the guard's desk as the workers waited to enter; another was a failure of the plant's computer system for checking IDs that day.
Plant critics have noted that a similar perimeter security system did not work at the Fukushima complex in March 2011, when a political activist crashed a truck fitted with a loudspeaker through a gate and stopped within 100 feet of one of the shuttered reactors there. He wasn't arrested until the next day. Police did the only thing they could do under Japanese law: They charged him with trespass, a lesser allegation than Americans could make in a similar circumstance.
Experts say the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be able to track only 99 percent of the plutonium as it moves through the plant, even with a comprehensive monitoring plan based in part on a computerized, three-dimensional map derived from laser range finding. "That's the best we can do with measurement," said Shirley Johnson, a chemist and retired IAEA safeguards inspector, who has worked at Rokkasho.
While 99 percent might sound good, the plant's annual output will be so high that a 1 percent error rate means roughly 80 kilograms of plutonium a year could be untraceable -- enough for 26 bombs. Critics worry as a result that the large uncertainties will open the door to diversion attempts by insiders.
Asked for comment, Gill Tudor, an IAEA spokeswoman in Vienna, did not dispute the 1 percent error estimate, which experts say is standard for all such large plants. But she said that "nuclear material accountancy is only one of the safeguards measures" that will be applied to Rokkasho and that the agency will, for example, also make random, short-notice visits to monitor the plant's operation. She added that all the measures "provide assurance that all nuclear material remains in peaceful purposes at the Rokkasho plant."
The plant's operators say that many of the operations will be done robotically or by remote control and under the gaze of 65 overhead and underwater video cameras watched at IAEA headquarters in Vienna. To guard against sabotage, Iwamoto said, the plant will require that two people always work together on the most sensitive operations, such as when they have direct access to the plutonium.
But none of the workers have been subjected to formal background checks like those required for anyone given access to secure areas at nuclear plants in the United States and Europe, including part-time workers in protected areas such as the reactor building. In the United States, for example, those checks typically involve verification of a worker's identity, confirmation of past employment, a search of FBI records based on fingerprints, a drug test, a credit check, and reports from references.
Employers in Japan, in contrast, are barred from accessing government records to verify whatever workers claim, and part-time contractors are often not vetted at all.
The View Inside Japan
Nobumasa Sugimoto, director of nuclear security at the government's new Nuclear Regulation Authority -- a group established in part to implement tougher rules in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster -- said a nuclear attack could happen at any time.
He said that his new group is particularly concerned about reports that companies with links to organized crime are providing services to the nuclear industry. Hundreds of subcontractors, for example, are working on the government-sponsored cleanup of radioactive fallout in the zone around the devastated Fukushima reactors. Police say some are linked to the yakuza, tattooed mobsters who operate in a kind of twilight zone, engaging in legitimate businesses as well as loan-sharking, extortion, and other crimes.
The authority is concerned, Sugimoto said, that if yakuza-connected workers are given sensitive jobs, they could be bribed into conspiring with terrorists to steal materials or mount an attack. "Basically, they are criminals, and they would do anything for money," he said. A senior official at the National Police Agency, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive government information, confirmed that the yakuza have been involved in nuclear site operations.
The regulatory group's experts will publish a report later this spring recommending tighter security measures, including some form of background checks for workers, he said. He called these regulations "one thing we definitely lack."
But he added that there is little chance of arming the private security guards at Rokkasho or other nuclear plants. "It's a very strong and deeply cultural way of thinking, and therefore civilians, although they are security guards, are requested to do their jobs unarmed," he said. "If arms would be given to security guards, there would be a huge national debate."
Japan's prime minister during the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Naoto Kan, said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity at his parliamentary office that he worries that Japan's government and industry are still committed to propping up the plutonium program, despite what he now claims are some obvious reasons to cancel it.
Kan, a member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, is one of several ex-premiers urging the conservative Abe government to reconsider its commitment to nuclear power -- so far without success. Before the disaster, Kan said, he had debriefed some officials with the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) who had traveled to the United States to discuss the terrorist threat to nuclear plants. The NISA, since abolished, was part of the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, a bastion of support for the nuclear industry.
Kan said the NISA officials returned from their trip unimpressed, telling him, "America might be under terrorist attacks, but Japan is very unlikely to be so."
He said this attitude was widely shared in industry and government. "Japan simply didn't consider terrorism a possibility here," he said, and as a result "Japan almost entirely ignored the advice" of the United States after 9/11.
"And you may ask whether Japan is prepared for such threats," he said. "Well, the answer is that it isn't prepared for such attacks."
Toshihiro Okuyama and Yumi Nakayama, staff writers for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, contributed reporting for this article.
Photo: TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images