But even before the radioactive cargo arrived, the government had been taken aback by the broad opposition to the plan from Japanese citizens, environmentalists, nuclear non-proliferation groups and Japan's ever-vigilant Asian neighbours. Government officials have made conflicting statements on the country's plutonium plan in recent weeks, but it is clear that a radical reappraisal of the plan is under way behind the scenes.
Amid all the controversy, the actual arrival of the plutonium-carrying ship, the Akatsuki Maru, at the port of Tokai, went off calmly. In true Japanese style, the main protesting groups had registered beforehand with the local police, and there were at least two policemen for each of the 640 demonstrators at the port. The demonstrators stayed in their allocated areas, waving banners reading 'We don't need plutonium' while chanting and beating drums. Greenpeace boats which attempted to enter the port behind the Akatsuki Maru were blocked by vessels of the Maritime Safety Agency.
According to the original plan, 30 tons of plutonium from Britain and France were to be shipped back to Japan over the next 20 years to fuel fast- breeder reactors which would both generate power and produce more plutonium. This fuel-cycle was seen as the ideal answer to Japan's lack of natural energy resources, which now forces it to rely on imported oil and other fuels.
The magic plutonium solution has rapidly lost its appeal in recent years, however. Britain, France, Germany and the US have all abandoned plans to develop plutonium reactors because of the expense and potential dangers, and now rely on uranium reactors which are less toxic and, with the recent fall in the price of uranium, much cheaper.
Japan itself is experiencing difficulties in building its own plutonium reactors. The construction of the pounds 3bn Monju test reactor, for which yesterday's plutonium cargo is destined, is already a year behind schedule, and the plant is not likely to become operational before next autumn. There have been problems with the cooling system and with the manufacturing of the fuel pellets.
Even if the Monju reactor overcomes all its problems, the government is finding it increasingly difficult to find new sites around the country to build other nuclear reactors in the face of strong opposition from citizens' groups.
Japan's difficulties with plutonium are not just technical. Worldwide protests at the transport by sea of the radioactive material caused the ship to take a circuitous route from Europe down past the southern tip of Africa, across the Indian Ocean and south of Australia before sailing up the Pacific to Japan. At least a dozen countries en route said they would not allow the ship to pass through their territorial waters. And fears that the ship might have been a target for nuclear terrorists prompted the US navy to track its progress by submarine.
Kiichi Miyazawa, the Prime Minister, yesterday heaved a sigh of relief at the safe arrival of the Akatsuki Maru. 'We are glad that the ship returned without an accident. We also have to thank the French and US governments for their support,' he told reporters.
But now that the plutonium has arrived in Japan, a longer-term fear is the negative effect it might have on regional stability. China already has nuclear weapons, and North Korea has been developing its own nuclear programme, although it is unclear how far the secretive Communist state has progressed in its work.
And although Japan has repeatedly said it will never manufacture nuclear weapons, the simple presence of plutonium on Japanese soil, combined with the country's technological expertise, already makes Japan a de facto nuclear power.
In theory the one and a half tons of plutonium that arrived yesterday could produce more than 100 nuclear bombs - a fact that Japan's Asian neighbours have not hesitated to point out. And as the rest of the world is trying to reduce its stockpiles of plutonium in the wake of the Cold War, Japan's nuclear strategy envisages a stockpile of some 90 tons of plutonium by 2010.
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