The Carter administration's bid to curb global production of plutonium the nuclear fuel and explosive, is facing an urgent, determined challenge from Japan.
Negotiators are flying to Washington Saturday to argue that President Carter's plan is a reversal of U.S. nuclear energy policies and would wreck Japan's atomic power program.
The clash that Carter and Premier Takeo Fukuda were unable to settle at their March meeting must now be resolved. At Tokai village, 60 miles northeast of Tokyo, scientists are testing a plutonium-fueled experimental reactor due to begin operation later this month. In June or July, a $130 million nuclear fuel reprocessing plant is to start making more plutonium, unless U.S. officials can sell Carter's plan is a reversal of U.S. nunecessary and may increase the spread of nuclear weapons.
The Japanese government is unlikely to agree. Officials are solidly behind Fukuda's outright rejection of what they see as an American attempt to limit the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Privately, high-ranking bureaucrats say they consider the Carter proposals unworkable and unfair to Japan.
The Carter administration's energy plan is not to be unveiled until April 20. But Carter has stated his determination to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons as a basic tenet of his foreign policy. He indicated that the United States will abandon the manufacture of plutonium fuel and ask other nations to follow suite.
A valuable, potentially self-perpetuating fuel, plutonium is also highly poisonous and could be used to make nuclear weapons if it fell into the hands of an unscrupulous government or a terrorist group. In a recent book, "Nuclear Power: Issues and Choices," a group of American Scientists contended the risks are too great.
Carter gave Fukuda a copy of the book and photocopies now circulating among key Tokyo ministries have caused alarm and resentment.
"It's very difficult to understand the American philosophy," commented an official of the government's nuclear industry division." We think that America will defer reprocessing indefinitely and ask other countries to follow the same policies --
The trouble is that the highly industrialized and resource-poor Japanese are embarked on an ambitious nuclear power expansion to reduce their dependence on oil. Now they consider that the United States, which gave advice, technology and sold them 12 of their 13 operating atomic power plants, has thrown a wrench in the reactor.
They see a choice between defying the United States or risking an energy program they feel is essential to Japan's future. If they yeild to Carter's wishes, a new generation of plutonium-using fast-breeder reactors would have to be shelved indefinitely.
The United States supplies all the enriched uranium used in Japan -- 2, 200 tons in 1976 -- and under a 1958 agreement between the two countries, could prevent conversion of the spent fuel into plutonium at Tokai.
That, it is understood, will not be done. The hope is that the Japanese can be persuaded that the Tokai plant is too small to be economic and that to contaminate it with radioactivity in three months would be an irreversible mistake.
The Japanese officials expect difficult negotiations. They believe Carter's views on nuclear dangers will not change easily.
Japan, the only nation to be atom-bombed, renounced war in a new constitution and adopted the principles of not producing, possessing or permitting the presence of nuclear weapons on Japanese soil.
Last June, when the parliament ratified the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, under which Japan foreswore nuclear rearmament, the goverment pointedly emphasized that the treaty permits unhindered development of atomic energy for peaceful uses.
Japan is plainly among the countries least likely to misuse reprocessed plutonium, but in seeking to sell an unpopular global policy, the United States feels it cannot except a cose ally.
"For 20 years we have followed U.S. guidelines on nuclear policy," a Japanese diplomat states. "Now you are saying you made a complete mistake . . . but it's too late." Only a year ago the U.S. signed an agreement with Japan for joint research into fast-breeder reactors -- a plutonium-reliant concept implicitly doomed by recent Carter statements.
Officials fear the Carter proposals will deliver a blow to public confidence in an already controversial program.Nuclear power advocates here have had to fight site-by-site against safety and environmental resistance and are falling 50 per cent behind targeted power production targets.
Through plutonium and fast-breeder reactors, the Japanese planners hoped to complete the nuclear cycle and attain a degree of energy independence.
Nuclear power has a much higher priority in Tokyo's energy strategy than in Washington's. Japanese fear a global energy crisis in the 1980s and are skeptical of American assurances that supplies of uranium will be abundant. Japan for some enriched uranium and the Carter plan may further the trend to diversity supply.