With its turquoise-striped walls and massive steel cooling towers, the new industrial complex rising from bluffs above the Pacific Ocean looks like it might produce consumer electronics.
But in reality the plant 700 kilometers north of Tokyo is one of the world’s newest, largest and most controversial production facilities for a nuclear explosive material.
The factory’s private owners said three months ago that after several decades of construction, it will be ready to open in October, as part of a government-supported effort to create special fuel for the country’s future nuclear power plants.
Once it’s running, sometime after October, the plant will produce thousands of gallon-sized steel canisters containing a flour-like mixture of waste uranium and plutonium. In theory, the plutonium is capable of providing the fuel for a huge nuclear arsenal, in a country that protects its nuclear plants with unarmed guards and has resisted U.S. pleas to upgrade security.
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 nation, representing 9 percent of the world’s stocks under civilian control. The figure includes 730 pounds of high-grade plutonium, the kind preferred by weapons designers, that Japan has agreed to send to the United States.
Once the Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Center at Rokkasho opens, the size of this stockpile could double in five and a half years. That’s because Japan is 20 years from completing the first of the reactors designed to burn the plutonium Rokkasho will produce. And an interim plan to burn it in standard reactors depends on a government push to restart the country’s nuclear power industry, an action that faces political and regulatory hurdles.
When the plant is operating at full capacity, it’s supposed to produce 8 metric tons of plutonium annually. That’s enough to make an estimated 2,600 nuclear weapons, each with the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT.