November 6, 2000
STATUS REPORT ON SEA SHIPMENTS OF RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL
The Nuclear Control Institute commends nations along nuclear transport routes for their efforts at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and in other fora to strengthen international norms on the transport of nuclear materials. NCI notes the contribution by many governments to the discussion on this important matter and urges continued participation in on-going efforts to end the dangerous and unnecessary shipments by sea of weapons-usable plutonium and associated high-level nuclear waste.
These nuclear shipments are directly related to and precipitated by the controversial practice of French, British and Japanese nuclear programs to recover weapons-usable plutonium from the spent fuel of commercial nuclear power reactors by means of reprocessing, and to recycle this plutonium as fresh fuel in these reactors. Japan will have more than 30 tonnes of separated plutonium stored in France and the U.K. if all the spent fuel now in storage there is reprocessed. This plutonium will likely be returned to Japan in the form of plutonium-uranium, mixed-oxide (MOX) reactor fuel. The nuclear wastes that are the byproduct of reprocessing will be shipped to Japan as vitrified, high-level waste. It will take as many as 50 or more sea shipments to accomplish this task.
Controversy in Japan over the use of MOX fuel in power reactors has delayed a shipment of MOX that had been expected to take place this fall. A new shipment date has not yet been announced. A shipment of defective MOX fuel assemblies, to be returned to the U.K. from Japan, is two to three years away. Waste shipments, however, are not affected by the MOX dispute, and the next waste shipment could get underway before years end.
We continue to point out that the international regime under which these sea shipments take place is entirely inadequate. Shipping states have ignored pleas to prepare environmental impact assessments, consult with affected coastal states, engage in emergency response planning, guarantee salvage of lost cargoes, or commit to realistic liability coverage. Until shipping states agree to these conditions, the shipments should not be permitted to go forward.
In the interest of keeping potentially affected en-route states and the public informed, we offer the following report on the status of upcoming nuclear shipments.
Vitrified High Level Waste. Japan Nuclear Fuels Limited (JNFL) and COGEMA, the French reprocessing company, announced that the sixth and largest shipment of vitrified high-level waste (HLW) will take place from France to Japan in the second half of 2000. According to a JNFL news release (http://www.jnfl.co.jp/presse99/pr000331b.html), 192 canisters of HLW, a by-product of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, will be shipped in eight large casks on one ship. We anticipate that this high-level waste shipment will be conducted much in the same manner as were the previous five shipments, presenting an environmental risk as well as an attractive target for nuclear terrorists along its transit route. The last three high-level waste shipments transited the Panama Canal though future shipping routes are likely to be kept secret until departure of the vessels.
New Shipments of Spent Fuel. In mid-October, 10 Japanese utilities appear to have
concluded a new contract with Cogema, the government owned French reprocessing company, to ship 600 additional tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel to France for reprocessing. Commercial spent fuel shipments from Japan to Europe ended over a year ago when all spent fuel contracted under old reprocessing contracts was delivered to the European reprocessing factories. This new contract would result in the re-establishment of spent fuel shipments over a period of at least four years. When these shipments conclude it is likely that Japanese spent fuel will then be shipped to the Rokkasho site, where Japan is currently constructing a spent fuel reprocessing facility. That facility is projected to cost $20 billion and, if ever operated, will result in a large-scale domestic capacity for Japan to continue to separate and stockpile weapons-usable plutonium.
MOX fuel. The Japanese Embassy in Washington issued a news release in July that formal consultation had begun regarding the second shipment of MOX fuel from France to Japan. This process began with Japans submission to the U.S. State Department of a transport security plan that calls for two lightly-armed vessels of Pacific Nuclear Transport Limited (PNTL), a company primarily owned by British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), to transport the plutonium fuel. This shipment has been delayed, however, as a result of the controversy surrounding defective MOX fuel shipped to Japan from Britain one year ago.
Defective MOX fuel. A consignment of defective MOX fuel sent to Japan last year will be returned to Britain at a cost to BNFL of 40 million Pounds, the British and Japanese governments jointly announced in July. The return shipment will consist of 8 fuel assemblies, containing over 200 kg of weapons-usable plutonium. The fuel in question was fabricated at British Nuclear Fuels Limiteds (BNFL) Sellafield facility and was shipped to the Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), where it would have been the first commercial-scale use of MOX fuel in Japanese reactors. It was only after the arrival of the fuel in Japan, and as a result of media reports, that BNFL admitted that quality-control data related to fabrication of the fuel had been falsified. Japanese utilities then rejected the fuel and demanded that BNFL take it back. The resulting crisis in the Japanese and British plutonium programs has led to a delay in MOX use in Japan.
The agreement between Britain and Japan on the return of the defective MOX states that maximum consideration will be given to the relationship with coastal states. En-route states will have the opportunity to engage the shipping countries as never before. We encourage en-route states to make their views known to the shipping states and to continue to raise issues of concern: lack of an environmental impact statement, lack of prior consultation with en route states, lack of demonstrated salvage ability, and failure to provide proof of liability in the event of accident.
Given the requirements of the U.S.-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement governing plutonium, the U.S. will be involved in the return MOX shipment in at least two ways: (a) a formal subsequent arrangement with Japan must be developed and then reviewed by the U.S. Congress before the shipment can proceed, and (b) just as for shipments going from Europe to Japan, the U.S. must approve the security plan developed by Japan for the return shipment.
According to the U.S.-Japan nuclear agreement, an armed vessel on government service must escort the transport ship. While the U.S. approved the security plan for the 1999 MOX shipment, and affirmed to the U.S. Congress that the ships were on government service, it turns out that the ships had no such status. In a July 23, 1999, letter to a Member of Parliament, Energy Minister John Battle affirmed that the two lightly armed freighters carrying the MOX to Japan were civilian vessels engaged in commercial cargo operations and had no special status. Thus, it is clear that security requirements of the U.S.-Japan agreement were not met and that any security plan for a MOX shipment must specify use of an armed vessel formally designated to be on government service.
We encourage concerned governments to request of the U.S. Government that any security plan include an armed vessel on government service and to ask to be informed of the status of the subsequent arrangement which will be presented to Congress.
As an alternative to the return shipment, we propose that the defective MOX fuel be classified as nuclear waste and be used in a demonstration in Japan to show that plutonium can be disposed of directly by immobilizing it in existing high-level nuclear waste. Such an immobilization project could set a positive example in Britain as well as in other countries, such as France, Germany, Russia and the United States, where burgeoning plutonium stockpiles are a liability from a waste-management and non-proliferation perspective.
Related Developments. With more nuclear shipments being considered, the pressure on Britain and France to halt reprocessing grows. On June 30, the OSPAR Commission for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, comprised of 15 countries in northern Europe, agreed to begin planning for implementation of the non-reprocessing or storage option for spent fuel stored at the reprocessing plants in France and Britain. Their decision was prompted by the troubling discharge of radioactive materials into the air and water from the spent fuel reprocessing plants. By confronting Britain and France, the OSPAR countries are seeking to halt such discharges. Twelve countries voted for the decision, but Britain and France abstained and maintain that they are not bound by the decision.
On June 13, the British Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) published plutonium figures for 1999, which revealed that Britains stockpile of commercial weapons-usable plutonium continues to grow rapidly. The British plutonium stockpile has now reached 70 tonnes, 11 tonnes of which are foreign-owned, and no plan exists for use of the British material. BNFL is seeking licensing for its new Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) but lacks sufficient foreign MOX fabrication contracts to meet the licensing requirement that it demonstrate financial viability. As British reactors cannot or will not use MOX, no domestic contracts are pending.
The size of the plutonium stockpile starkly demonstrates the folly of both reprocessing and the related shipments of plutonium and nuclear waste. As there are ample supplies of low-enriched uranium, there is no justification whatsoever for the nuclear industry to accumulate massive quantities of weapons materials which are not needed to produce energy. Further, plutonium accumulation flies in the face of U.S. non-proliferation policy, which calls for a halt to increases in plutonium stockpiles and for initiatives to reduce such stockpiles.
In Panama, for the first time, there is high-level discussion of the risks of transporting vitrified high-level waste and other nuclear materials through the Panama Canal--- a discussion that never took place while the Panama Canal was under U.S. control. On June 28, 2000, the National Assembly of Panama sponsored the First International Forum on the Transit of Nuclear Material. Panamanian and international specialists spoke about security and environmental concerns related to shipment of nuclear materials through the Panama Canal. They pointed out that nuclear waste ships have little protection against terrorist attack and that Panama does have the right under international law to control access of such ships to the Panama Canal.
Governments can do much both to tighten controls over nuclear shipments and to address the growing problems presented by the growing plutonium stockpile. We urge nations to enquire of the British and Japanese governments about the status of the MOX and reprocessing programs in their countries and why such unnecessary and dangerous programs continue. Britain, France, Japan and Russia should be placed under international pressure to disclose what they plan to do with their rapidly growing plutonium stockpiles now accumulating at their reprocessing plants and to present plans for immobilizing these stockpiles as waste.
The Nuclear Control Institute encourages continued efforts by en-route countries and the public toward implementation of greater control of sea shipments of nuclear material.
Return to What's New Page
Return to Sea Shipments Page