April 18, 2000
Ambassador Tuiloma Neroni Slade
Permanent Mission of the Independent State of Samoa
to the United Nations
New York, New York
Maritime Nuclear Transports and the NPT Review Conference
I am writing to you regarding your Government's stated concerns about safety and environmental risks associated with maritime nuclear transports. Given the fact that shipments by sea of plutonium and highly radioactive wastes are both continuing and increasing in frequency, I hope your Government will consider the importance of raising this troubling issue to good effect at the upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.
Nuclear transports have received increasing attention at NPT meetings, establishing a precedent for a serious discussion at the upcoming meeting, April 24-May 19, at the United Nations. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the final report of Main Committee III pointed to "the interest of all States in any transportation of irradiated nuclear fuel, plutonium and high-level nuclear waste being conducted in a safe and secure manner...." The issue again was raised in 1997 at the initial Preparatory Committee (Prep Comm) meeting for the 2000 NPT Review Conference. Argentina and other countries called for stronger regulation of these transports. They renewed this appeal at the Third PrepComm in 1999, including a call by New Zealand for prior notification and "ideally, prior informed consent" before nuclear transports could proceed.
The Nuclear Control Institute helped to bring these concerns to the attention of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in March 1996 at a special consultative meeting of shipping and coastal states on radioactive transports. Our Scientific Director, Dr. Edwin Lyman, and our international-law consultant, Prof. Jon Van Dyke of the University of Hawaii Law School, presented papers on unresolved safety hazards of sea shipments of plutonium and highly radioactive waste, and on the legal rights of coastal states for full protection against them. (These papers are available on request or can be downloaded from the NCI website at www.nci.org/ib31196a.htm and www.nci.org/ib3496a.htm).
Argentina, coordinating with twelve other coastal nations that were responsive to the technical and legal issues we had raised, called for the adoption of a full and binding code of practice "which would deal with all the measures we have talked about during this meeting." Those measures included requirements on shipping states for prior notification of, and consultation on emergency-response plans with, coastal states; preparation by shipping states of environmental-impact assessments; and guarantees by the shipping states of salvage of lost nuclear cargos and of full indemnification for damages caused by accidents. The IMO Code of Practice has been made binding, but the sought-after reforms are still under consideration and have not been adopted, despite an IMO pledge to consider them as "a matter of high priority."
Further attempts to secure the legal rights of coastal states to protect themselves against the hazards of nuclear transports were rebuffed at the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1997. A series of amendments on transboundary movement of spent fuel and nuclear waste were offered to joint conventions dealing with the safety of these materials. The amendments, put forward by Brazil, Morocco, New Zealand, Poland and Turkey, failed to win the required two-thirds vote. New Zealand voted against the conventions, Morocco abstained, and Turkey voted in favor but called on the IAEA to prepare a separate convention on transboundary movements of nuclear materials. No separate convention has been prepared by the IAEA.
The 2000 NPT Review Conference will address Article IV issues relating to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Given the failure of past fora to fully address the concerns of coastal states, sea shipments of weapons-usable plutonium and radioactive wastes are deserving of prominent attention on the Article IV agenda.
These shipments are directly related to and precipitated by the controversial practice of French, British and Japanese nuclear programs to recover weapons-usable plutonium from spent fuel of commercial nuclear power reactors by means of "reprocessing," and to "recycle" this plutonium as fresh fuel in these reactors. As discussed below, there are severe risks associated with maritime nuclear transports, and these risks are made all the more unacceptable by the fact that the shipments are entirely unnecessary.
Japan does not need plutonium fuel or plutonium breeder reactors for energy security in the face of a global glut in conventional uranium fuel. Uranium is cheap and abundant. Japan could stockpile a strategic reserve containing a 50-years' supply of low-enriched uranium for less than half the projected cost of its plutonium program. Nor does Japan need to reprocess spent reactor fuel for nuclear waste-management purposes. A geologic repository is almost certainly the ultimate destination for all spent nuclear fuel, including spent fuel made with recycled plutonium. Separating plutonium from spent fuel and recycling it as fresh fuel represents an uneconomical and ultrahazardous approach to nuclear power production that is out of step with Atoms for Peace and that forces coastal states to take significant, involuntary risks.
Japan is using British and French state-owned reprocessing industries to recover plutonium from its spent fuel. Several thousand tons of Japanese spent fuel have been shipped to Europe since the 1970s for this purpose. In 1992, return shipments of plutonium and associated highly radioactive wastes began. In September 1999, the first commercial shipment of plutonium in the form of so-called plutonium-uranium, "mixed oxide" (MOX) fuel from British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) and COGEMA arrived in Japan. The BNFL MOX fuel has since been rejected by Japanese government and utility officials due to deliberate falsification of quality-control data on MOX fuel pellets by employees of the British manufacturer---the same company that ships the fuel and wastes and assures coastal states that the shipments are safe! This defective fuel may have to be shipped back to the UK, requiring a military-type escort as stipulated in the U.S.-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement.
I invite you to review a recent Nuclear Control Institute analysis, "Understanding Japan's Nuclear Transports: The Plutonium Context," co-authored by NCI President Paul Leventhal and NCI Research Director Steven Dolley, and available on our web site www.nci.org/mmi.htm This paper, which Mr. Leventhal presented last October at a conference on nuclear transport sponsored by the Maritime Institute of Malaysia, provides a detailed analysis of the current situation.
Over the next 15 years, the number of nuclear transports by sea is expected to increase dramatically. There are likely to be at least 15 to 30 nuclear waste shipments, each carrying up to 150 half-tonne canisters of highly radioactive nuclear waste. In addition, Japan is building up a stockpile of about 60 tonnes of plutonium in Europe, which represents dozens of more shipments of MOX fuel unless the plutonium is combined with radioactive waste and disposed of in waste form---the preferred approach from a safety, security and non-proliferation perspective.
Despite the concerns raised at the last NPT review conference about the safety and security of maritime nuclear transports, vital issues concerning these shipments remain unanswered by the shipping states---Japan, Britain and France. Dr. Edwin Lyman, the Nuclear Control Institute's scientific director, has analyzed the current international standards governing transports of vitrified high-level waste and finds that in the event of a shipboard fire, or a collision and sinking at sea, significant radioactive releases into the environment could occur because of the use of faulty stainless-steel canisters and rubber-like seals used to package and contain the waste. He recommends that the casks be subject to a test beyond the required 30-minute fire at 800 degrees C, in order to determine the duration and heat of a fire that would lead to cask failure. Dr. Lyman's most recent analysis, "The Sea Shipment of Radioactive Materials: Safety and Environmental Concerns," was presented to the Maritime Institute of Malaysia and can be obtained from NCI.
At the same conference, Professor Van Dyke, in his paper,"The Legal Regime Governing Sea Transport of Ultrahazardous Radioactive Materials, with Proposals for Action," finds comparable defects with regard to protections to which coastal states are entitled under international maritime law:
Still lacking are agreements regarding salvage responsibilities, liability of shippers for damages, obligations to consult regarding the best routes and to provide advance notification to concerned coastal states, the preparation of environmental assessments, and contingency planning to handle shore emergencies and salvage responsibilities. Until agreements are reached on these important matters, the shipment of these extremely dangerous materials will continue to violate fundamental norms of international law and comity, because they place coastal nations that receive no benefit from the shipments at grave risk of environmental disaster without any legal protections.
A number of governments have expressed apprehension about the potential effects of a nuclear shipping accident on their island economies and fragile ocean environment. Caribbean and Pacific island nations have repeatedly voiced their objections and concerns, as have regional associations including CARICOM, OPANAL, and the South Pacific Forum. In March 1999, for example, the Heads of Government of CARICOM, in a joint statement,
express[ed] their outrage at the increasing frequency and volume of the hazardous materials being shipped and the fact that the Caribbean Sea has now become the preferred transit route, in spite of repeated protests by States in and bordering on the Caribbean Sea. . . . They reiterate their appeal to the Governments of France, Japan and the United Kingdom to desist from this dangerous misuse of the Caribbean Sea.
As a result of recent developments concerning falsification of MOX quality-control data by BNFL and the diseconomics of plutonium fuel, Japan's and Britain's plutonium programs are encountering great difficulties and could yet be abandoned, especially if concerned governments express objections to the ultrahazardous nuclear transports generated by these programs.
We urge you to raise sea shipments of plutonium and radioactive waste at the upcoming NPT Review Conference and to support a resolution calling for a suspension of these shipments, if reforms are not adopted by a date certain. The international debate on sea shipments has gone on for more than a decade, with little or no progress in addressing the concerns of en route nations. The NPT Review Conference is the appropriate international forum for discussion and action. We are prepared to assist you in making the legal and technical case for the reforms being sought by the coastal states and for suspension of these shipments if these reforms are not forthcoming.
Thank you for your consideration of these views.