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April 7, 1997

Position Paper


Given longstanding concerns regarding sea transports of plutonium and highly radioactive waste, the Nuclear Control Institute appeals to governments to seize upon the occasion of the upcoming Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee meeting to call attention to these ultrahazardous shipments---in particular, unresolved questions about their safety, the inadequacy of emergency response plans, and the absence of a liability regime in the event of an accident.

At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, delegates drew attention 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 and in accordance with international law." [Report of Main Committee III, May 5, 1995] The impending Preparatory Committee meeting provides an important opportunity to press for prompt realization of this objective.

When the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1993 adopted a voluntary International Code of Practice for the transport of nuclear material, it pledged prompt adoption of complementary measures to augment the Code. These included requirements for prior notification of the shipping route, advance consultation on emergency plans, a full environmental-impact assessment, a formal liability regime, and a demonstrated salvage capability.

At a follow-up meeting of experts at the IMO last year, a group of 13 nations called for incorporation of these reforms into a strict, binding code. These complementary measures remain stalled at the IMO while the shipping nations cite the principle of "freedom of navigation" to justify the permissive regime now in place. Coastal nations, however, have rights under the "precautionary principle" and other elements of international law to demand an augmented, mandatory code as a condition for such ultrahazardous transports to proceed.

In an analysis of unresolved safety issues, Dr. Edwin Lyman, our Institute's scientific director, finds that in the event of a shipboard fire, or a collision and sinking at sea, the highly radioactive cargo could be rapidly dispersed because of the use of faulty stainless-steel canisters and rubber-like seals to package and contain the waste.1

Earlier this month, the British-flag freighter, Pacific Teal, carrying 20 tons of highly radioactive waste in the form of 40 glass blocks from France to Japan, reached Japan after a nine-week voyage that took it around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, around Australia, through the Tasman Sea and Pacific region to Japan. The ship penetrated the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones of a number of nations despite assurances from the shippers that it would not. The next, much larger, waste shipment (75 tons, 150 glass blocks) is expected to depart France in July. Dozens more will follow.

A number of governments in the South Pacific have expressed apprehension about the potential effects of a nuclear accident on their island economies and fragile ocean environment. These concerns, shared by many actual and potential en-route states in other regions, need to be addressed in an international context. The NPT Preparatory Committee meeting is a suitable forum because these shipments are a direct consequence of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, provided for under Article IV of the Treaty, and were considered in that context by Main Committee III during the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. Further consideration of these ultrahazardous nuclear transports is therefore both appropriate and imperative at this Preparatory Committee meeting and at the NPT Review Conference of 2000.

End Note

1. "The Sea Transport of Vitrified High-Level Radioactive Wastes: Unresolved Safety Issues," by Edwin Lyman, PhD, Nuclear Control Institute, December 1996.Back to document

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