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January 13, 2000



The Honorable William Jefferson Clinton

President of the United States

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC  20500


Dear President Clinton,


            We are writing to you in reference to the imminent passage of a shipment of vitrified, high-level radioactive waste (VHLW) through the Panama Canal en route from France to Japan.  This shipment, the largest of its kind, will be the first to transit the Canal since authority over the Canal was transferred from the United States to Panama on December 31 of last year. 


In view of the growing risks of terrorism worldwide, we are gravely concerned that this shipment could provide a tempting target for radiological sabotage by extremist groups.  The key to preventing such an attack is the denial of access by intruders to the ship itself.  However, in February 1998, Greenpeace demonstrators managed to board the first such shipment through the Canal unchallenged, an incident that led the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Commission to conclude that canal security was "dysfunctional."  


Given the U.S. commitment to working with the Panamanian government to ensure the future security and viability of the Canal, we urgently request that you commission a study that conservatively assesses the threat to the Canal in the event of a sabotage attack on this VHLW shipment.


            In a November 6, 1998 letter to the Secretaries of State, Defense and Energy, the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) and Greenpeace International requested that no shipments of nuclear materials be allowed to pass through the Canal until a thorough assessment of the consequences of a worst-case radiological sabotage attack, including use of penetrating charges and high-explosives, had been conducted.  This request previously had been included in a letter sent to you on January 15, 1998 by five members of Congress.


            In particular, we requested that Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) be asked to evaluate the potential radiological release from a VHLW shipping cask caused by a "two-stage" attack, in which a saboteur would first use a shaped charge to penetrate the wall of the cask, and then fill the cask cavity with high explosive.  The resulting explosion would cause the cask to fail, at the same time severely damaging and dispersing its radioactive contents.  This type of attack is a variation on a scenario posited by SNL in its 1996 "Proliferation Vulnerability Red Team Report," in which terrorists are able to gain access to VHLW containing surplus weapons plutonium by filling a punctured shipping cask with low (instead of high) explosive, which they use to blow the lid off the cask without damaging the contents. 


            We note that in previous assessments of radiological sabotage of nuclear waste shipments, SNL analyzed only a "one-stage" attack in which only a single shaped charge was used.  This caused penetration of the cask, but radiological release was limited because only the VHLW directly in the path of the jet was fractured and available for release.  This type of attack clearly does not result in the maximum credible radiological release from a VHLW cask that could be induced by terrorists intent on causing the most severe event possible.


Our request that the SNL Red Team be assigned to examine the consequences of a sabotage scenario involving use of high explosives to disperse high-level waste has gone unanswered.  In a March 12, 1998 deposition in U.S. Federal District Court in

Puerto Rico, the organizer of the SNL Red Team acknowledged that "the Report did not consider, or generate any data relevant to potential radiological dispersal or potential radiological impacts to the environment resulting from attempts to sabotage a

shipment of plutonium-bearing materials."  We believe the SNL Red Team report should be re-opened to consider radiological sabotage of highly radioactive waste and

that the data generated thus far is highly relevant to this question.


We note that since our initial request for this study, SNL has done another assessment of the consequences of radiological sabotage of spent fuel transport casks (R. Luna, K. Neuhauser and M. Vigil, "Projected Source Terms for Potential Sabotage Events Related to Spent Fuel Shipments," July 1999), updating the obsolete analyses of the 1970s upon which current physical protection requirements are based.  However, this report also fails to analyze attacks with the objective of maximizing the radiological release from a cask, through the two-stage mechanism described above or others.  It therefore does not resolve the issues that we have raised.  Moreover, it does not involve actual demonstrations but only computer simulations. 


We maintain that a full-scale test of the two-stage attack must be carried out, on an actual transport cask containing simulated VHLW, in order to better understand the maximum possible radiological consequences to the public and the environment that can be achieved through malevolent intent.  This information is essential for the development of a security plan that can assure the denial of unauthorized access to the ship and the VHLW casks it contains, and therefore provide adequate protection for the Canal against credible threats of radiological terrorism.


We ask for your prompt attention to this urgent matter, which thus far has been not acted on by the responsible agencies, because it has a direct bearing on the level of security that should be applied to the imminent shipment of intensely radioactive nuclear waste, and any others that might follow in the Canal. 








Paul Leventhal                                      Edwin S. Lyman, PhD                                                                                                                                President                                                            Scientific Director




cc:        Bill Richardson, Secretary of Energy

            William Cohen, Secretary of Defense

            Madeline Albright, Secretary of State



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