Ships likely carrying giant plutonium cache leave Ibaraki for U.S.


A ship believed to be carrying plutonium and other nuclear materials left a port in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Tuesday in line with a 2014 Japan-U.S. agreement to return the deadly material to the United States.

The plutonium was provided to Japan for research purposes in the 1970s by Britain, France and the United States. It was stored at a facility in Tokai run by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, as the government tried in vain to achieve a nuclear fuel cycle.

On Tuesday afternoon, the British transport ship Pacific Egret left the port for the United States amid heightened security after taking on several containers in the morning.

Under the bilateral agreement, 331 kg of plutonium will be transported to the U.S. government’s Savannah River Site nuclear facility in South Carolina for final disposal. Highly enriched uranium will also be sent to the United States.

At the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands in March 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to return the materials upon request from the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which is seeking to strengthen control of nuclear materials.

The port in Ibaraki was on heightened alert as the Pacific Egret arrived Monday morning, with Japan Coast Guard patrol boats in position nearby.

The plutonium in question was intended for use at the Fast Critical Assembly, a JAEA research facility. Of the 331 kg, 93 kg had come from the U.S., 236 kg from Britain and 2 kg from France. The total is enough to make 40 to 50 atomic bombs.

According to a U.S. group monitoring nuclear issues, it will be the largest maritime shipment of plutonium to be made since 1993, when the Akatsuki Maru of Japan carried 1 ton from France to Japan for use at Monju, the troubled prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture.

The Pacific Egret and an escort vessel arrived in Kobe earlier this month after departing Britain in mid-January. Their route and schedule are being withheld for security reasons.