The radioactive trail

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

BY THE time this editorial is out, the Akatsuki Maru, the Japanese ship due to elbow through 11 tonnes of reprocessed plutonium waste from the French port of Cherbourg to Japan, will probably be honking its horn. Already, its path home is a solid wall of protest; the Caribbean, the Philippines, Micronesia, Barbados, Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have their hackles raised. It's obvious that if it were possible, a lot of people would block off the Panama Canal with their bodies, which the ship will probably sidle through as a short cut.

Such, indeed, is the passion that shipments of radioactive waste can fuel. Reprocessing, everyone knows by now, doesn't rob it of its lethal character. The shadow of Chernobyl is long and long-lived, and will blanket over any official claims that this shipment is safely armoured against leaks and sabotage. In any case, activists say, a little mishap could lead to a disaster that would put Chernobyl in the shade.

In essence, however, this maritime transfer is being looked upon both by anti-nuclear activists and the Japanese government as a test case, a litmus test of official obduracy pitted against environmental esprit, if you will. If the Akatsuki Maru can ram through the protests, so can a 30-tonne shipment due soon after from other reprocessing centres like Sellafield in Cumbria, England. Greenpeace International, the Nuclear Control Institute in London and the Tokyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Centre are only the organised tip of a groundswell of feeling against the dangers of nuclear contamination.

What is distressing is that Japan's Social Democratic Party government, shoved into the Diet on a wave of anti-nuclearism, should bow to the opposition's demand for more funding for nuclear reprocessing. Those opposed to the activists also say that there were almost no protests over the years since 1968, when reprocessing plants began shipping nuclear waste from Japan to Europe: now that it is time for the some of the gunk to return home -- for the first time -- the silence has no business being ripped apart.

The wheedling illogic behind this argument ought to be ignored. While it is true that nuclear energy has given Japan what it hasn't to most of the developed and developing world -- a robust and well-paying industry, a society with almost no unsatisfied energy wants -- it has also given Japan its first and hopefully last experience of nuclear mayhem. The Akatsuki Maru will ride 3 oceans. What could happen is the stuff of nightmares.

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