Congress of the United States
House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

January 15, 1998

The Honorable William J. Clinton
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Clinton:

We are writing to express our deepest concerns about the safety and security of the upcoming shipment by sea of vitrified, high level nuclear waste (VHLW) from France to Japan on a British-flagged ship.

Despite the pledge you made to us in your letter of February 5, 1997, to examine the safety issues we raised in the course of two earlier shipments, we have received no response to our concerns. Now we are confronted with a third shipment of highly toxic nuclear waste. The countries involved refuse to disclose the route of the shipment in advance. It is our understanding that this shipment will be the first cargo of vitrified nuclear waste through the Panama Canal, which would most likely take it through Puerto Rico's treacherous Mona Passage, near the U.S. Virgin Islands, and on a direct path with Hawaii, a likely emergency port of call after transiting the Canal. Thus, this route directly affects vital interests of the U.S. states and territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Consequently, we ask you to notify the nations involved that the impending shipment should be delayed until the United States reviews the outstanding safety and security questions under procedures spelled out in the U.S.-Euratom agreement pertaining to retransfers of "irradiated nuclear material" derived from spent power reactor fuel originally provided by the United States to Japan.

We especially protest use of the Panana Canal. For reasons of safety and security elaborated below and in the attached paper, we regard the Canal as an unacceptable route and urge you to strongly oppose its use for shipments of VHLW. The United States recognized the inherent problems of physical protection at the Canal when it refused Japan permission to ship separated plutonium through the Canal in 1992. More recently, it has been reported that the State Department will refuse Japan permission to ship mixed-oxide plutonium fuel through the Canal. It is obvious, therefore, that it would be both difficult and expensive to protect a ship from terrorists as it transits the Canal.

Radiological terrorism is a threat that must be taken seriously and represents a "proliferation nsk" even though there is no concentrated plutonium in this shipment. Japan's Maritime Safety Agency has set up an anti-terrorism squad to deal with incidents at sea near

[page two]

Japan, according to recent press reports. What special U.S. security measures are in place in the Caribbean and mid-Pacific to respond to such a throat to this shipment? ls Japan prepared to reimburse the costs of such special measures? In any event, we consider it imprudent to expose the Panama Canal to risks of a radiological accident or incident.

In a recent report by Sandia National Laboratories, Proliferation Vulnerability Red Team Report, October 1996, a scenario is described in which terrorists intercept a cargo of radioactive glass logs in transit, and quickly penetrate the massive shipping cask using a shaped charge. The report leaves no doubt that injection of high explosives could result in blowing off the lid of the cask and ejecting the highly radioactive contents. A large fraction of the radioactive glass could be dispersed in the form of intensely toxic, respirable particles over a wide area. The vulnerability of the brittle glass waste to energetic impacts and high temperatures renders this cargo particularly susceptible to this or other forms of sabotage, such as a missile attack.

Dozens of coastal nations around the world opposed the earlier sea shipments of vitrified, high-level nuclear waste. They have sought advance consultation on the route of the ship, a role in emergency planning, and the resolutions of salvage and liability issues. The sound basis for their concerns was demonstrated in November when a container ship carrying highly radioactive cesium from France to the United States was split in two in a storm in the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in the loss of this intensely radioactive cargo. French regulatory authorities acknowledged the cesium containers would rupture under high pressure on the ocean floor, causing dispersal of the cesium. Nonetheless, they declared they would not salvage the radioactive cargo.

Past assurances by the State Department that these waste shipments comply with international safety regulations and pose no threat to the environment are a perfunctory and unsatisfactory response to our concerns. International standards for the transport of radioactive materials are clearly inadequate Both the International Maritime Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency are in the process of revisiting their transport guidelines under strong pressure from en-route states. Nor has there been my environmental assessment of the shipment by sea of vitrified waste that results from the reprocessing of spent fuel from commercial power reactors to acquire plutonium

The impending shipment should not proceed until all promised studies are available. The International Atomic Energy Agency is now coordinating an international research program on accidents at sea-a work in progress. In your letter to us of last February, you committed to have the Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation "examine the technical safety issues" raised by Dr. Edwin Lyman in a paper that we submitted to you on December 17, 1996. The IAEA and Sandia National Laboratories have since prepared critiques of Dr. Lyman's work. However, these critiques were never sent to us and we have not had an opportunity to review them. We enclose a detailed rebuttal of these papers by Dr. Lyman, which indicates that they are superficial and in some instances misinformed. Finally, the Deportment of Energy never met its commitment of September 1993 to broaden a report on plutonium sea shipments to cover shipments of high level waste. Instead, DOE gave the task to the IAEA, which thus far has only produced its highly questionable critique of Dr. Lyman's paper.

[page three]

Given thc gravity of the safety and security risks and the inadequacy of the response to our concerns to date, we ask that you seek postponement of the impending shipment. In particular, the Panama Canal route poses an inordinate threat to U.S. interests and should be avoided.

Thank you for your consideration of this urgent request.


Carlos Romero-Barcelo
Member of Congress

Neil Abercrombie
Member of Congress

Robert Underwood
Member of Congress

Donna Christian-Green M.D.
Member of Congress

Eni F. H. Faleomavaega
Member of Congress

[What's New] Return to What's New[Sea Shipments] Return to Sea Shipment Page[Home Page]Home Page