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H.E. Guillermo Ford


Embassy of Panama

2862 McGill Terrace N.W.

Washington, DC 20008


Sea Shipment of High-Level Nuclear Waste Soon to Reach Panama Canal


Your Excellency:


       I am writing to you concerning a sea shipment of highly radioactive nuclear waste that is now underway from Europe to Japan and due to reach the Panama Canal by this weekend or the beginning of next week. I ask for your assistance in contacting responsible officials in Panama in the hope that this ship will be subject to far more stringent security arrangements than have been applied to past shipments.  Further, the costs of such arrangements should be fully reimbursed by the Government of Japan.


       The nuclear-waste cargo now heading for Panama is aboard an unarmed British-flagged freighter, the Pacific Swan, which departed from France on December 29. It is the fifth such shipment of "ultra-hazardous" nuclear waste since 1995, the third to use the Panama Canal, and the first shipment since control of the Canal has passed from the United States to Panama.  It is also the largest such shipment, containing 104 canisters of vitrified waste---each containing a one-half-ton radioactive glass log---compared with the 28 to 60 canisters in past shipments.


       Over the next 15 years, there are likely to be at least 15 to 30 shipments, each carrying up to 150 canisters of highly radioactive nuclear waste.  These shipments are the direct result of Japan's highly dangerous and discredited plutonium fuel program (See "Understanding Japan's Nuclear Transports:  The Plutonium Context," a paper I presented in October at a conference sponsored by the Maritime Institute of Malaysia).  Japan continues to seek permission to ship weapons-usable plutonium fuel through the Canal, which the United States thus far has rejected on security grounds.


       The United States Government has not been responsive to concerns the Nuclear Control Institute has raised about the potential for and consequences of sabotage of a high-level waste shipment.  Until these issues are resolved, we believe these shipments should not proceed through the Panama Canal, or at the very least should be subject to elaborate security precautions sufficient to guarantee denial of access to the ship and its cargo.


       Our concerns about transiting the Canal are based on the vulnerability of these shipments to acts of radiological sabotage.  Radiological terrorism is a threat that must be taken seriously even though there is no concentrated, weapons-usable plutonium in these waste shipments.  Japan's Maritime Safety Agency has established an anti-terrorism unit to deal with incidents at sea near Japan, but the Japanese Government's concern apparently does not extend to Panama and other states in the path of these shipments.  What security measures are in place at the Panama Canal to respond to a terrorist attack on a nuclear cargo ship?  Is Japan prepared to reimburse the costs of such measures and the related higher costs of marine traffic control and services resulting from special security arrangements?


       The vulnerability of these ships to attack and the radiological consequences of such an attack should be a matter of grave concern to the Government of Panama.  In connection with the U.S. program to dispose of some surplus weapons plutonium by "immobilizing" it in highly radioactive waste, the U.S. Sandia National Laboratories prepared a report ["Proliferation

Vulnerability Red Team Report," October 1996] which included a theft scenario in which terrorists intercept a military cargo of radioactive waste in transit and quickly gain access to a shipping cask of canisters containing glass logs and embedded plutonium.  The terrorists use a shaped charge to punch a hole in the shipping cask and then inject a low-explosive charge through the hole.  The low-explosive is detonated to lift off the lid of the shipping cask without damaging the waste canisters and thereby enable subsequent removal of cans of concentrated weapons plutonium that are imbedded in the glass.


       We have pointed out to U.S. Government agencies that a variation of this two-stage attack could be used by terrorists to execute radiological sabotage rather than theft of a commercial shipment of radioactive glass logs containing no cans of plutonium imbedded in the waste. The nuclear waste about to enter the Panama Canal is such a commercial shipment.  The first step would be the same---use of a shaped charge to penetrate a shipping cask.  The second stage, however, would involve injecting a high-explosive charge for the purpose of causing severe damage to the waste canisters within and dispersing a significant fraction of the radioactive glass in the form of respirable particles over a wide area. 


       The potential consequences of such an attack should be weighed carefully by Panamanian authorities.  The ship would sink in the Canal and become a highly radioactive hulk.  Radioactive contamination of the water would pose an immediate threat to the water supply of Panama City.  The radioactive plume resulting from such an attack could cause prompt fatalities and latent cancer deaths among Canal personnel and nearby residents, and it would render the Canal and surrounding area inoperable and uninhabitable for a considerable period of time. The vulnerability of the brittle glass waste to energetic impacts and high temperatures renders this cargo particularly susceptible to this or other forms of sabotage, such as a missile attack. 


        As you will see from the attached correspondence with the Panama Canal Commission and the U.S. Department of Defense, the Nuclear Control Institute has not received satisfactory responses to our concerns about the level of security on nuclear waste shipments transiting the Panama Canal.  In February 1998, Greenpeace demonstrators managed to board the first such shipment unchallenged---an incident that led the Commission to conclude that security attending that shipment was "dysfunctional."  Had this ship, also the Pacific Swan, been boarded by a group of well-armed attackers instead of peaceful demonstrators, its cargo would have been in grave jeopardy, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the people and the vital interests of Panama.


       Last June, the U.S. Department of Defense wrote us that, based on coordinated efforts between the Commission and Panamanian Public Forces, "Security in the Canal area has improved since last year....We are confident that these new procedures are adequate."  The letter made specific reference to " limit access to sensitive areas in and around the Canal during such transits."  We do not believe, however, that anything less than use of armed escort vessels and of armed forces aboard the waste ship will suffice.


       Further, our request that the Sandia 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 Sandia 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."  (Emphasis supplied.)  We believe the Sandia 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.  Other studies by Sandia examine only relatively small radiological releases caused by shaped, penetrating charges, but do not examine the larger releases that could result from a two-stage attack involving injection of a high-explosive charge after initial penetration. 


       Until such an analysis is undertaken, it is imprudent to permit these nuclear-waste shipments to proceed through the Panama Canal without extraordinary security, if at all.  Although the probability of such an attack can be considered to be low, the potential consequences are cataclysmic and the ability of intelligence agencies to provide advance warning of an attack by fanatical terrorists are problematical at best.  Thus, the high costs and disruptive effects of providing sufficient security to repel a surprise attack should be weighed against the potential consequences of such an attack.


       Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.  I will telephone you in the hope of arranging a meeting to discuss this letter and the attachments.               





                                    Paul Leventhal



Attachments follow:




Letter to John A. Mills, Secretary, Panama Canal Commission,

January 22, 1998, and response from Mr. Mills, January 28, 1998.


Letter to William S. Cohen, U.S. Secretary of Defense, November

6, 1998, and responses from Department of Defense, February 19,

1999 and June 8, 1999.


Deposition of John P. Hinton, Sandia National Laboratories, U.S.

District Court, Puerto Rico, March 12, 1998.


"Understanding Japan's Nuclear Transports:  the Plutonium

Context," by Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley, presented to the

the Maritime Institute of Malaysia Conference on Carriage of

Ultrahazardous Radioactive Cargo by Sea---Implications and

Responses, Kuala Lumpur, October 18, 1999


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