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February 11, 1999


The Honorable William S. Cohen
Secretary of Defense
U.S. Department of Defense
The Pentagon
Washington, D.C. 20301-1000

DOD Review of Plan for Plutonium Fuel Shipments to Japan

Dear Secretary Cohen:

I am writing to you on behalf of the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) concerning security arrangements for the upcoming shipment of plutonium/uranium mixed oxide ("MOX") fuel from Europe to Japan. Under the terms of Annex 5 of the U.S.-Japan agreement for nuclear cooperation, the United States must approve Japan's transportation plan for each shipment containing plutonium extracted from nuclear fuel originally supplied by the United States for use in Japanese power reactors. This is being described as the first of many planned commercial shipments from Europe to Japan of MOX fuel containing direct-use, nuclear-weapons material. It is, therefore, essential that a proper security plan be put in place for what may be a precedent-setting shipment.

NCI is deeply concerned that the security arrangements in the transportation plan now under review by DOD are grossly inadequate. Indeed, the physical protection requirements for each successive shipment of U.S.-origin plutonium to Japan have been ratcheted down even as the capabilities of international terrorist organizations and of the states that support them have been ratcheting up. In 1984, a shipment of 253 kilograms of plutonium took place aboard a Japanese cargo vessel. "[T]he vessel was placed under surveillance by military vessels, or maritime safety vessels, including U.S. vessels, throughout the voyage." [Environmental Assessment by DOE, October 1987, p. 4-8] In 1992, 1.5 tonnes of fissile plutonium were shipped aboard a specially-outfitted British cargo vessel and escorted throughout the voyage by a Japanese coast guard cutter. Now, in 1999, it is proposed that, instead of an armed escort vessel, two British cargo ships will be armed and will "escort each other." This scheme, it is claimed, would provide protection "equivalent to" the previous shipments.

We strongly disagree and ask you to inquire into a review process that now seems driven by diplomatic and cost considerations to accommodate Japanese government and commercial interests rather than U.S. common-defense and security interests as required by the Atomic Energy Act. There is no equivalence between earlier security arrangements for plutonium shipments and the upcoming shipment. A 1988 Joint Chiefs study, "Transportation Alternatives for the Secure Transfer of Plutonium from Europe to Japan," asserts, "The Department of Defense believes that to adequately 'deter' theft or sabotage, it would be necessary to provide a dedicated surface combatant to escort the vessel throughout the trip." [Congressional Record, September 16, 1988, S12767]

The 1988 DOD study analyzed security aspects of shipping plutonium under four scenarios: 1) unescorted civilian freighter; 2) civilian freighter escorted by a U.S. military vessel; 3) civilian freighter escorted by a foreign military vessel and 4) transport via an unescorted military vessel. The Pentagon study did not analyze the current scheme being proposed---two armed civilian freighters escorting each other. NCI requests that a full security analysis of this new plan be made by the Pentagon, with the involvement of the Department of the Navy. Without such an in-depth assessment, the plan being considered is simply indefensible.

It was clearly understood in 1988, when the Annex 5 sea shipment Guidelines were developed, that the phrase "armed escort vessel" referred to a military or coast guard vessel, appropriately manned with trained personnel and capable of effectively protecting the cargo carrier. As stated in a side letter to the "Subsequent Arrangement for Sea Transport of Plutonium from Either France, or the United Kingdom, to Japan," was confirmed during the negotiations that the armed escort vessel is to be either a maritime safety/coast guard vessel or any other ship on government service authorized and fully capable of protecting the transport ship and its cargo and of deterring acts of theft or sabotage. (House Doc. 100-231, 100th Congress, 2d Session, Annex D, "Side Letter Text," p. 32.)

In connection with the development of the Annex 5 sea shipment Guidelines, then Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead confirmed, in a December 22, 1988, letter to Chairman Stephen Solarz of the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that the Guidelines contemplated "that the transport ship must be accompanied by an armed escort vessel during the entire course of shipment." He further emphasized, "We do not at present expect that alternative security measures for an entire voyage would be satisfactory."

More recently, Acting Secretary of State Strobe Talbott stated in a September 6, 1996, letter to Chairman Benjamin Gilman, House Committee on International Relations, that the United States "has a written understanding with the Government of Japan explicitly confirming that Annex 5b. applies to the shipment of fabricated MOX fuel." Secretary Talbott went on to state that "the physical protection for MOX shipments will be no less rigorous than the measures applied to Japan’s 1992 shipment of bulk plutonium oxide." In particular, he affirmed that Annex 5b. required an "armed escort vessel unless alternative security measures, documented in the transportation plan, effectively compensate for any absence of an armed escort vessel." Noting that no alternative security measures had at that time been proposed for shipments of fabricated MOX fuel, he unequivocally restated as the position of the Clinton Administration the position taken in Deputy Secretary Whitehead’s 1988 letter that "[w]e do not expect that alternative security measures for an entire voyage would be satisfactory."

In light of the commitments just described, we find deeply disturbing recent information released by the British Government that an alternative security arrangement for sea shipment of fabricated MOX fuel that does not involve protection of the cargo carrier by a military or coast guard vessel has indeed been submitted to the United States Government.

On January 18, 1999, in response to a Parliamentary question concerning arrangements being made for the shipment to Japan of nuclear materials recovered at British Nuclear Fuels' reprocessing plant at Sellafield, Energy Secretary John Battle responded that plutonium so recovered has been fabricated into MOX fuel. He then described the following arrangement for transport of the first MOX shipment:

The security arrangements currently under discussion with Japan and the US would involve two PNTL [Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd.] transport ships travelling together for mutual protection. Each would carry armaments, for defensive use only, under the control of specially trained officers of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary. These security provisions are solely for protecting the ships, their crew and their cargo in the extremely unlikely eventuality of an armed assault by terrorists. (Hansard, January 18, 1999, p. 365.)

Frankly, the physical security protection provided under this arrangement appears to be grossly inadequate. Freighters obviously do not have the maneuverability or speed of military or coast guard escort ships such as the Shikishima, which was commissioned specifically as a plutonium escort vessel for the 1992 shipment. The Shikishima was also equipped with 35 mm rapid-fire dual guns, 20 mm Vulcan guns and two on-board helicopters. It is not likely that the PNTL vessels will be armed in an equivalent manner.

Further, the level of security provided in 1992 needs to be enhanced for the 1999 MOX shipment. In 1992, the Shikishima was not equipped with radar-directed, anti-missile defenses such as Phalanx Sea Sparrow and "Sea Whiz" weaponry. This, despite a Pentagon recommendation for such defenses based on the earlier Joint Chief's assessment of the need to defend a plutonium cargo vessel against an attack "by small, fast craft, especially if armed with anti-ship missiles." We understand that this issue was not even raised in the initial inter-agency review of the proposed Japanese transportation plan, perhaps because the Navy was not involved in the review. Surely, the U.S. Government's review of a plan to transport plutonium by sea should include the expert view of the Navy.

Further, even if the UK Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary personnel are qualified to repel a conventional attack (an assumption now being challenged in a Parliamentary inquiry into its performance in force-on-force exercises at British nuclear facilities), their capabilities could be neutralized in an attack involving the use of ship-to-ship missiles---the threat originally anticipated by the Pentagon at the time of the U.S.-Japan Agreement.

In the present period of increasingly sophisticated and ruthless international terrorism, only the most stringent seafaring and physical protection measures should be acceptable to assure the security of weapons-usable material. We urge, therefore, that you direct the Department of Defense to prepare its own in-depth security analysis, to reject the proposed transport plan as inadequate, and to transmit that view to the Department of State, which is coordinating the inter-agency review of the Japanese transportation plan.

Thank you for your consideration of these views. We look forward to a prompt response.



Paul Leventhal

cc: Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, Senate Armed Services Committee
Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, House Armed Services Committee

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