January 10, 1995

The Honorable William J. Clinton
The White House
l600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D. C. 20500

Dear President Clinton:

We are writing to express our deep concern over the shipments by sea of high-level radioactive nuclear wastes between Europe and Japan that are expected to commence early this year.

We are frustrated that the Administration has not been responsive to our concerns regarding unresolved safety problems with these shipments. The United States Government is obligated to assert certain rights, as required by law, with regard to shipments of foreign radioactive material that are derived from nuclear fuel originally supplied by the United States.

The waste shipments, the first of which is due to depart France in February of this year, involve highly concentrated, extremely hot and intensely radioactive wastes that have been processed along with plutonium from the spent fuel of Japanese nuclear power reactors. The wastes and the plutonium are being processed in Europe mostly from nuclear fuel that was exported to Japan from the United States. As such, these materials, which contain or consist of special nuclear product, are subject to controls mandated by U.S. law.

To our dismay, a safety analysis of plutonium shipments by sea, prepared by the Department of Energy (DOE) pursuant to the Abercrombie Amendment to the Energy Policy Act of l992, was wholly inadequate. Furthermore, it was not transmitted to Congress until February of 1994 - a full year after the first commercial plutonium shipment proceeded from France to Japan. Fortunately, this shipment took a circuitous route around Africa that largely avoided territorial waters of most nations, including the United States.

Now we are faced with an impending shipment of vitrified (glassified) high-level radioactive waste that is expected to follow a shorter Caribbean-Panama-PacitiC route as specified in a March, 1986, Japan Nuclear Fuel Services (JNFS) planning document. In September 1993, the Department of Energy agreed to meet a request by Members of Congress, including Representative Neil Abercrombie and George Miller, chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources, to broaden the then-impending report on plutonium sea shipments to cover shipments of qlassified high- level waste as well. Hovever, when the final report was delivered five months later, it covered only plutonium shipments. In a transmittal letter, the DOE promised to address safety and security questions pertaining to waste and other types at nuclear shipments separately in two subsequent reports. Yet, as the result of objections raised by the Departments of State and Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the DOE withdrew this commitment in an October 3, 1994 letter to Members of Congress from the Pacific and Caribbean. Instead, our security concerns would be referred to the National Security Council (NSC) and our safety concerns to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). We have not heard from the NSC or the IAEA. Nor has the DOE transmitted to Congress an implementation plan of emergency procedures for states and territories in the path of plutonium shipments, ae mandated by the Abercrombie Amendment.

To make clear the basis of our growing frustration and concern, we enclose with this letter an independent technical study of the impending radioactive waste shipment prepared for three public- interest organizations by Dr. Edwin S. Lyman, a physicist at Princeton University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. The study addresses most of the questions that we had directed to the Department of Energy, and Dr. Lyman's findings are deeply disturbing.

His principal findings are that "the level of safety provided by current international standards governing the sea transport of vitrified high-level wasts is highly uncertain; [t]he maximum allowable storage and transport temperatures [for the waste] are too high and appear to compromise safety; [t]he procedure for determining the maximum allowable [radioactive] leak rate [from shipping casks] is obscure." On the basis of these findings, Dr. Lyman concludes: "[t]here are enough serious questions regarding the safety of the sea transport of vitrified high-level waste to justify a postponement of the first shipment, pending the results of further investlgation. He calls for an independent review of the nuclear-waste storage and transport system before the shipments are allowed to begin. Such a review, he recommends, should be undertaken "by the competent authority of one of the potentially affected nations along the route of the shipments - a category which includes the United States. To facilitate this process, industry must provide considerably more information than is presently available.

In his report, Dr. Lyman finds that exposure of the glassified waste to a prolonged hot fire in a severe accident, such as a collision with an oil tanker, could lead to a breach of all three barriers designed to contain the waste, resulting in the release of highly toxic radioactive material, especially cesium. Dr. Lyman also found that the very high temperatures encountered during normal storage and transport of the waste (over 500 degrees Centigrade/900 degrees Fahrenheit) could actually weaken the containment barriers and increase the probability that all three barriers would be breached in such an accident. He warned that radioactive releases could prove to be extremely hazardous to nearby conmunities...if an accident took place in a harbor or close to shore, or if the ship made an emergency port call following an accident." He noted that cesium was one of the principal contributors to the widespread contamination caused by the Chernobyl accident and that the average waste shipment "will include many times the quantity of cesium estimated to have been released by Chernobyl."

In addition, an O-ring seal similar to the type that contributed to the space shuttle Challenger disaster is used to prevent the escape of radioactive gases or particles between the cask body and the lid. According to the report, "[t]hese O-rings are the most vulnerable sites on the cask and ought be protected." Normal operating conditions can subject the seals to temperatures in the range 150-200 degrees Centigrade. The O-rings are prone to failure at temperatures above 230 degrees Centigrade. This provides a safety margin of less than 100 degrees Centigrade below the maximum seal operating temperature. "Thus the Cask could experience a significant loss of its containment ability even under relatively mild thermal conditions; in the event of a fire of greater severity than the [hypothetical accident], seal failure would be a near certainty."

Under these circumstances, Mr. President, we cannot stand by silently and allow this potentially lethal shipment to pass through or near our waters or to allow our ports to be available for emergency calls by a waste ship in distress. We respectfully and urgently request that you take the following actions immediately:

1. Request the Japanese and French governments postpone the waste shipments until industry provides the information needed to assess and resolve the safety problems identified in the Lyman Report.

2. Direct the Department of Energy to conduct the safety and security studies it originally intended, and direct the Departments of State and Transportation and advise the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withdraw the objections that blocked the studies from going forward. The studies should cover each of the unresolved safety problems identified in the Lyman Report. We are not satisfied with the DOE's referral of the security study to the NSC, since the NSC supported the bureaucratic opposition to the additional DOE studios. Nor can we accept the referral of the safety studies to the IAEA, since the IAEA has a conflict of interest stemming from its shared responsibility for the international transport standards challenged by the Lyman Report. We do not want to see our legitimate concerns relegated to a bureaucratic black hole or sacrificed in the interest of diplomatic expediency.

3. Advise the Governments of Japan and France that the United States will exercise its statutory obligations in two respects:

(A) Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, each waste shipment will be subject to U.S. prior consent on the basis of the special nuclear material contained in the waste. French data reviews by Dr. Lyman reveals that the average shipment of seven casks of vitrified waste will contain 15.1 kilograms (nearly two significant quantities) of plutonium. Since transfers of waste derived from U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel are not covered by the advance programmatic consent given to Japan for certain other transfers of special nuclear material under the U.S.-Japan nuclear Cooperation Agreement, waste transfers are subject to U.S. case-by-case approval under the terms of both the statute and the agreement. The significance of vitrified waste was underscored recently by the IAEA Director of Safeguards, who said that even if IAEA safeguards on it are eventually terminated, "that does not mean the agency abandons interest in it" and will require notification of any intention to reprocess it so that recovered plutonium could be put back under safeguards.

(B) Under the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Anti-Terrorism Act, each waste shipment containing more than two kilograms of plutonium will be subject to the required determination by the Secretary of Defense that physical protection will be adequate to deter theft or sabotage and that "no genuine terrorist threat" exists at the time of the shipments. Given the potential vulnerability of the hot glassified waste to a prolonged high- temperature fire, it is obvious that this cargo is particularly susceptible to a missile attack or other forms of sabotage, especially when the shipment is close to land, where risks of radioactive contamination are also the highest. The Pentagon, when first considering sea shipments of plutonium to Japan, warned: "...even if the most careful precautions are observed, no one could guarantee the safety of the cargo from security incident, such as an attack on the vessel by small, fast craft, especially if armed with modern anti-ship missiles." It is well known that an nunber of states that support international terrorists posses such missiles.

4. If for any reason the U.S. government is not prepared to object to the waste shipments proceeding through the Caribbean Sea, Panama Canal and waters adjacent to Hawaii, Guam and other U.S. territories, we ask that you authorize the U.S. Navy and/or Coast Guard to prove an escort for such shipments while they are in these waters to reduce the risk of collision or sabotage. Nuclear shipments potentially expose our constituents to involuntary risks that should be reduced to the fullest extent possible by a U.S. naval deployment. A transportation plan should be negotiated with France and Japan that assign the costs of such a deployment to them. If such an arrangement is not agreeable, nuclear waste shipments near or through U.S. territorial waters should not be permitted.

Mr. President, thank you for your consideration of our urgent appeal. Given the fact that first nuclear waste shipment is scheduled for February, we look forward to your prompt reply.


Neil Abercrombie
(D, Hawaii)

Patsy T. Mink
(D, Hawaii)

Victor 0. Frazer
(Ind., Virgin Islands)

Robert A. Underwood
(D, Guam)

Carlos A. Romero-Barcelo
(D, Puerto Rico)

Eni F.H. Faleomavaega
(D, American Samoa)

Reply from Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary

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