December 22, 1997
I am writing to you concerning an imminent shipment by sea of intensely radioactive waste from France to Japan---the third such shipment since 1995---as well as the related matter of preparatory work now underway on a possible Convention on the Safety of Transport of Radioactive Materials.
It is not yet clear which of three possible routes---Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope or Panama Canal---the ship will take. The nuclear-waste shipment is expected to leave France in January aboard a British-flagged ship. The ship reportedly will carry 60 canisters of highly radioactive glass logs, each weighing about one-half ton. Over the next 12 years, there could be several dozen shipments involving about 3,000 canisters of vitrified, high-level nuclear waste from Britain and France to Japan. This waste is a byproduct of extracting plutonium from Japanese used (spent) nuclear fuel in French and British reprocessing plants. The United States rejects any responsibility for this nuclear waste even though the United States supplied the fuel to Japan and consented to its reprocessing in France and Britain.
The hazards of shipping radioactive material by sea are very real. Last month, a container ship carrying highly radioactive cesium was split in two in a storm in the Atlantic Ocean. The fore section went to the bottom with its cesium packages. French regulatory authorities acknowledged the cesium containers would rupture at 3,000 meters, the depth at which the wreckage finally came to rest, but also announced they would not salvage the radioactive cargo. Lloyd's List, a shipping-trade newspaper, editorialized that the sinking of the ship, the MSC Carla, is "a stark reminder of what can be done by the sheer force of the elements upon a ship which, when she was built, was the last word in strength and power."
For years, coastal nations along the routes of radioactive transports have expressed concern about the safety of these shipments, the absence of formal procedures to notify and consult with coastal nations or involve them in emergency planning, and the unresolved issues of salvage and liability. I am enclosing an article, "Applying the Precautionary Principle to Ocean Shipments of Radioactive Materials," by Professor Jon Van Dyke, an expert on international and environmental law at the University of Hawaii. The Nuclear Control Institute commissioned Professor Van Dyke to prepare the paper on which his article is based, for presentation in March 1996 to the International Maritime Organization's Special Consultative Meeting of Entities Involved in the Maritime Transport of Materials Covered by the INF Code.
Professor Van Dyke's article builds on the precautionary principle to explore how a new regime is emerging to govern the sea transport of ultrahazardous material such as plutonium and high-level nuclear waste. He examines how the Law of the Sea Convention imposes environmental obligations on all states, as well as establishes certain navigational rights. He reviews recent international agreements that define more precisely the dynamic tension between the environmental interests of en-route states and the navigational interests of shipping states.
We believe Professor Van Dyke's paper is most pertinent to the International Atomic Energy Agency's forthcoming examination of international instruments and regulations pertaining to the safe transport of radioactive materials and to their implementation. The IAEA Board of Governors authorized the examination for the coming year (IAEA Resolution of 3 October 1997). This initiative will consider whether it is necessary to draft a Convention on the Safety of Transport of Radioactive Materials. The IAEA could appoint a panel of experts to begin this work as early as June.
In the meantime, the IAEA Secretariat has been tasked to prepare a report for presentation to the Board of Governors in June....
The IAEA resolution to examine the need for a transport convention grew out of a Diplomatic Conference in Vienna in September. The conference approved a Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. A number of states were rebuffed in their attempts to impose stricter requirements on transboundary sea shipments of radioactive waste. An amendment by New Zealand would have given a transit state notification and consent rights for radioactive shipments through its areas of national jurisdiction---i.e., its 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The proposal was rejected by a vote of 28 to 25, with 19 abstentions. The need for these requirements will be examined in the forthcoming IAEA report.
The reason such procedural safeguards are so important is that there are a number of unresolved safety problems associated with the shipment of vitrified high-level nuclear waste. A series of reports written by Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI's scientific director, and submitted to the International Maritime Organization, point out that if a shipment of nuclear waste were to sink in coastal waters, it could pose a long-term threat to people and to marine life because of important packaging and salvage problems. Dr. Lyman has found that the wrong type of stainless steel is being used for the canisters of vitrified high-level waste, making the canisters vulnerable to stress corrosion cracking, and that the rubber-like seals on the lids of the outer casks would fail in a shipboard fire. Consequently, ocean shipments of this waste are especially vulnerable. Salvaging a damaged, radioactive cargo would be immensely difficult and there is no evidence that a credible salvage plan exists.
We would be pleased to provide you with copies of Dr. Lyman's reports, or you may download them directly from the Nuclear Control Institute's Website (http://www.nci.org/seatrans.htm).
I would appreciate your apprising me of any initiatives your government undertakes with respect to this shipment, and I would appreciate receiving any official statements. Of course, we would be pleased to brief you further, if that would be useful. Thank you for your interest in this urgent matter.
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