Protesters condemn Japan's security plans for plutonium shipments

TOKYO, Jan 28 (AFP) - A coalition of nuclear protest groups Thursday condemned planned shipments of weapons-useable plutonium from Europe to Japan, warning of inadequate security.

Japan's Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Kansai Electric Power Co. plan to import mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel, probably some time this year, with shipments supervised by Britain.

The lobby groups, including Greenpeace, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi complaining of reported plans to ship the fuel without an armed Japanese gunboat in escort.

The plutonium fuel contained in the shipment, the first on a commercial scale from separation plants at La Hague in France and Sellafield in Britain, was expected to total about 450 kilograms (990 pounds), it said.

"The plutonium fuel contained in this shipment is classified under international regulation as "direct-use" weapons material which could be used to construct a nuclear bomb in one-to-three weeks," said the letter.

"The shipment will contain enough plutonium to contruct 56 nuclear weapons," it warned. "The security lapse attending this shipment is inexplicable and inexcusable."

The lobby groups said a previous shipment in 1992 was escorted by a Japanese Maritime Safety Agency ship with helicopters, 35mm cannons and 20mm machineguns.

But, they said, this time Tokyo was suggesting two freighters -- the British flagged Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal -- be lightly armed and escort each other.

"I think from many serious security analyses, this is a scandalous proposal," Damon Moglen, plutonium campaign coordinator at Greenpeace International, told a news conference.

An official from Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) said negotiations were still under way with Britain over the transport plans, declining to give any dates.

Once a deal was reached, Tokyo would disclose "as much as possible, so long as it does not interfere with the transportation," the MITI spokesman.

Regarding safety and security, the armament of the two ships would be no lighter than in the 1992 shipment, he said.

The letter to Obuchi from the groups -- Greenpeace, the Citizens Nuclear Information Centre, Green Action and the Nuclear Control Institute -- said Japan should consider the message the plutonium imports -- aimed at feeding its breeder reactors -- send to neighbours.

"Japan's growing stockpile of weapons-useable plutonium necessarily causes anxiety in East Asia and the wider international community," it said. "As the economic rationale for plutonium erodes, its weapons potential becomes all the more obvious."

Japan has 50 nuclear plants in operation, supplying more than 28 percent of the country's electricity.