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January 22, 1998

Mr. John A. Mills
Panama Canal Commission
1825 I Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20006

Dear Mr. Mills:

Thank you for meeting yesterday with representatives of the Nuclear Control Institute and Greenpeace International concerning the expected passage of the Pacific Swan through the Panama Canal. Pursuant to our discussion, here are the questions on security issues I am submitting to the Panama Canal Commission for written response:

1. A report by Sandia National Laboratories describes a two-stage attack in which terrorists use a shaped charge to penetrate the cavity of a vitrified high-level nuclear waste shipping cask and then inject a low-explosive charge to blow off the lid of the cask to facilitate the theft of the undamaged canisters within. This was intended as a credible theft scenario (in which the attackers remove the canisters by helicopter and later use explosives to remove cans of warhead plutonium embedded in the glass contents of the canisters). However, the Sandia analysis also suggests a credible sabotage scenario for commercial vitrified waste shipments (which contain no cans of plutonium) by noting that "excessive explosive charge size can rupture and deform the fragile component" (the waste canisters) within the cask. Although Sandia did not analyze what effect injection of a high-explosive charge in the cask cavity would be, the Nuclear Control Institute believes it is straightforward to assume that such a charge would cause serious damage to the radioactive contents and likely result in the expulsion of pulverized glass both in the form of respirable particles and non-respirable fragments. Such a two-stage attack utilizing high explosives in the Panama Canal could result in both the sinking of the ship and the dispersal of deadly radioactive material. The environmental and economic consequences of such an attack would be catastrophic. Thus, Sandia's warning that "sufficient institutional measures must be provided to prevent unauthorized parties from accessing and removing sufficient material" is applicable to a sabotage as well as to a theft scenario.

2. Given that this shipment may establish a precedent for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of vitrified waste shipments to follow, what arrangements will the Commission make to ensure that the Government of Panama has adequate security and emergency-response capabilities to deal with a radiological disaster after Panama takes over ownership and control of the Canal in the year 2000?

Given the imminence of the expected first passage of vitrified high-level nuclear waste through the Panama Canal, I would appreciate a timely response to these questions.


Paul Leventhal
Nuclear Control Institute


Richard Stratford, Department of State
Leonard Spector, Department of Energy
Gavin Carter, British Nuclear Fuels Inc.
Jean-Claude Guais, Cogema
Yoshiyuki Sakakibara, Japan Federation of Electric Power Companies

Response from Panama Canal Commission

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