February 5, 1999
Ambassador James B. Bolger
Embassy of New Zealand
37 Observatory Circle NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
Given your Government's concerns about sea shipments of ultra-hazardous nuclear materials, the Nuclear Control Institute wishes to alert you to the present, advanced stage of planning for the first of many commercial shipments of plutonium "mixed oxide" (or MOX) fuel from Europe to Japan. The weapon-usable plutonium in this fuel is derived from nuclear fuel originally supplied by the United States to Japan, and therefore the United States Government has a veto power over plans for transport and use of the plutonium. We urge your Government to inquire into details of the shipment and to make its views known to the United States Government.
Our principal concern is that this shipment will take place with inadequate physical protection. The plutonium in MOX fuel can be removed by straight-forward chemical means and used in nuclear weapons. The shipment, therefore, requires an "armed escort vessel" under the terms of the 1988 U.S.-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement. However, the British Government, which is responsible for the shipment, has announced a transport plan in collaboration with the Japanese Government that does not include the purpose-built, Japanese plutonium-escort vessel (a coast-guard cutter) used for a pilot shipment of plutonium to Japan in 1992. The U.S. State Department confirmed this in a "Press Guidance" circulated within the department on January 20 but never publicly released. This plan is inadequate and represents a serious departure from the obligations of the U.S.-Japan agreement, and thus should be rejected.
Japan must secure U.S. approval of the transportation plan as stipulated by the U.S.-Japan agreement. A U.S. State Department-coordinated, inter-agency review of the plan is now underway and is expected to be completed soon. Because the plan differs significantly from the measures approved earlier, we have asked U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson to submit the plan to Congress as a "subsequent arrangement" to the U.S.-Japan agreement. Once submitted, Congress would then have 15 days to consider rejecting the plan. At this point, despite a previous commitment to submit any significantly altered plan to Congress as a subsequent arrangement, the Executive Branch now appears unwilling to do so.
As the upcoming shipment of MOX fuel is likely to be the first of many to come, it is imperative that en route states make their concerns known to the countries engaged in planning for the shipment---the United Kingdom, France, Japan and the United States. Annex 5 of the Implementing Agreement of the U.S.-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement expressly provides that any plutonium transport ship "will be escorted from departure to arrival by an armed escort vessel unless alternative security measures, documented in the transportation plan, effectively compensate for the absence of an armed escort vessel." It was clearly understood in 1998 when the 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. Therefore, 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 U.S. Government.
This time, instead of an armed military-type escort vessel, two Pacific Nuclear Transport Limited (PNTL) freighters "will escort each other." The security presence on the PNTL ships will be drawn from the British nuclear facilities guard force, the Atomic Energy Agency Constabulary, and not the navy or coast guard. Armaments on the vessels are not known but are unlikely to match the armaments of the coast guard ship used in 1992. In addition, despite the Pentagon's assessment in 1992 of the need to defend against an attack "by small, fast craft, especially if armed with anti-ship missiles," the escort vessel was not equipped with radar-directed, anti-missile defenses. In 1999, there should be such anti-missile armaments as "Phalanx Sea Sparrow" and "Sea Whiz" missiles. We understand that no such additional armaments are included in the new proposed transportation plan.
This plan is a serious breach of earlier understandings on the security requirements of the U.S.-Japan agreement. Government claims that this plan provides protection equivalent to the 1992 shipment are simply not credible. The two freighters are not equivalent to the fast-moving, highly maneuverable, helicopter-equipped, purpose-built plutonium escort ship. The top speed of this vessel, for example, is twice that of the cargo vessels. Furthermore, the armaments on board the ships are to be "under the control of" the Constabulary officers, a guard force whose naval training is likely to be rudimentary, and whose performance at nuclear plants has been subject to investigation and severe criticism in the British Parliament.
Further, this shipment of plutonium MOX fuel is not necessary from an energy perspective. It is important not to be misled by Japanese claims that MOX is crucial to fueling nuclear power reactors in Japan. Japan's reactors are designed to operate on low-enriched uranium fuel, of which there is no shortage. MOX fuel is 5 to 10 times more expensive to use than uranium fuel. In addition, the plutonium breeder reactor program in Japan has been shut down by a serious accident, but Japan still has not halted reprocessing and stockpiling of weapon-usable plutonium fuel.
The shippers are unlikely to announce the route or departure date well in advance of the MOX shipment. We expect it to take place in the coming months. The shipment could go through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal, around the Cape of Good Hope, or around Cape Horn. As a potential en-route country, you may wish to inquire about this dangerous and unnecessary undertaking and make your views known to the U.S. State Department and the Department of Energy. You might also wish to express concern to the shippers that no environmental impact statement (EIS) has been done for this and other nuclear shipments, despite repeated requests for such assessments by governments and non-governmental organizations.
We also wish to inform you that on February 3, 1999, COGEMA, the state-owned French reprocessing company, announced that a fourth shipment of highly radioactive nuclear waste will take place very soon. Not to be confused with MOX, high-level nuclear waste (HLW) is the dangerous by-product which remains after plutonium is removed from spent fuel by reprocessing. COGEMA said that the departure of the shipment would be made public "a day or two" in advance and that the route would be released 24 hours after departure. We encourage you to inquire of the shipping countries about emergency planning and liability in case of accident and demand that an EIS be prepared before the shipment takes place.
Please feel free to call me to discuss any aspect of the MOX or HLW shipments or to brief you on them, if you would like. We also could provide you with documents about the MOX shipment, including the U.K. Government's statement on January 18 about the security plan and the State Department's January 20 Press Guidance. These documents and other information on nuclear transports are also available on the NCI website http://www.nci.org/seatrans.htm
Attachments: NCI news release of January 22
Coalition news release of January 28
A similar letter was sent to the embassies of 30 other en route nations
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