THIS morning, the Akatsuki Maru, carrying 1.7 tonnes of reprocessed plutonium, is due quietly to enter Tokai port in Ibaraki prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, after its long, controversial journey through the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans from France. Quietly, that is, unless the Japanese branch of the Greenpeace environmental movement, or Japanese anti-nuclear activists, are able to stage an incident. This seems unlikely, although the more numerous foreign demonstrators may be more successful. All aircraft have been ordered to keep out of Tokai's airspace. Tokai port is used exclusively by the Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC). The plutonium will move from the Akatsuki Maru to the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC)reprocessing plant through well-guarded JAPC and PNC installations. JAPC and PNC, plus the Japanese Science and Technology Agency (JSTA), the Transport Ministry and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) would like nothing better than for the whole plutonium project to revert to obscurity. In much of the world outside Japan, the voyage of the Akatsuki Maru ranked with the Sagawa Kyubin political scandal, and Emperor Akihito's visit to China as the main Japanese news story of 1992. Inside Japan the story ran way behind Mamoru Mori becoming Japan's first astronaut, Japan capturing seven medals at the Winter Olympic Games, and a film-maker being attacked by the yakuza. In a poll of 11,852 readers of Japan's largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, the plutonium saga ranked a mere 20th, and only reached that position because the voyage of the Akatsuki Maru had received worldwide attention. Japan's plutonium-cum-nuclear policy ought to be raising numerous controversies within the country itself. It has not. The policy has been a test of Japanese democracy - a test it has failed. This conclusion was initially suggested a few years ago when Japanese authorities decided that the nation would double the number of nuclear power stations in the next 30 years, making it less dependent on Middle East oil. Another 30 to 40 nuclear power stations in a country continually subject to earthquakes is, at the least, questionable. But very few doubts were raised by the public. The massive Japanese acquisition of reprocessed plutonium also raises concern. JSTA and MITI have decided that Japan will try to make as many of those new nuclear power stations fast-breeder reactors. These would produce even more plutonium, along with power, if the technology were available. Full-scale fast-breeder reactors would generate such enormous heat that the technological means to contain safely the reaction on a commercial scale do not yet exist. Experimental fast-breeders are closing down abroad. One is about to start up in Japan. The United States, Germany, France and Britain have all put fast-breeder research on the back burner. This alone ought to have stimulated political debate within Japan about the course it has embarked upon. It has not done so. Plutonium-based power looked a better bet in the 60s and 70s when the prices of both petroleum and uranium soared. Since then these items have become cheaper, and plutonium has become much more expensive, but the original Japanese power policy has remained in place. Japanese electric power is already very expensive. Consumers ought to be seriously questioning the fact that prices will go even higher if the Japanese bureaucracy sticks to a plutonium-based power policy. Docile as ever, Japanese consumers are not doing so. The bureaucrats are so entranced by plutonium that MITI has put up three billion yen over the next four years for research into cold fusion, as a result of two American scientists claiming that nuclear fusion can be achieved at much lower temperatures than previously thought. While conventional fast-breeder reactors may be feasible by around the year 2030, scientific sources are more sceptical about cold fusion. Yet even as Japan increases its plutonium gamble, there is no debate on whether the risk is prudent or wise. The many questions arising from Japan's plutonium policy indicate three realities which Japanese democracy would do well to confront. Japan still pursues self-sufficiency with scant regard for international consequences. Hubris over Japan's technological prowess is in danger of replacing rational market-oriented calculation. As Japanese bureaucrats are not held accountable for far-reaching decisions, they still basically wield irresponsible power.