January 8, 1997

Ambassador Franklin Sonn
Embassy of the Republic of South Africa
3051 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20008

Proposal for En-route States to Plot Course of Nuclear Waste Ship

Dear Mr. Ambassador:

In connection with the upcoming sea shipment of highly radioactive nuclear waste from France to Japan (expected to depart in mid-January), I am writing to convey an urgent proposal by the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) and a timely paper NCI commissioned from Professor Jon Van Dyke of the University of Hawaii Law School. This imminent radioactive-waste transport is expected to voyage down the west coasts of Europe and Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand, and skirt a number of Pacific islands before reaching Japan. It is likely to traverse the EEZs of a number of nations.

Professor Van Dyke's paper examines the legal rights of en-route nations to bar such ultrahazardous shipments from their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), including the use of force when denied prior notification and consultation. The accompanying press release describes the proposal by the Nuclear Control Institute for the en-route states to keep themselves informed of the ship's whereabouts by plotting its course by means of a transponder signal from the ship--- that is, an automatic voyage monitoring system that reports the ship's position, heading and speed to an operations center every two hours. We also propose that en-route states dispatch coast guard vessels to monitor the waste ship, both to ensure it steers clear of their maritime zones and to compensate for the absence of an armed escort vessel.

The British-flagged nuclear waste ships signal their course to Japan, France and Britain, but not to the en-route states. We believe the nations in the path of the ship have as much right to know where it is as do the shipping states, and therefore should demand access to the now-secret transponder signal. We also believe such ultrahazardous, radioactive shipments are deserving of an armed escort vessel, which the shippers refuse to provide except when the cargo is plutonium.

Our transponder proposal is consistent with the position enunciated by South Africa's representative to the International Maritime Organization's Special Consultative Meeting of March 1996 in London. At that meeting, he cited as a particularly important issue, "[t]he notification and regular reporting to coastal states of the movement of vessels within their designated search and rescue area."

Professor Van Dyke points out that the maritime powers which insist on the doctrine of freedom of the seas are ignoring provisions in the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention that require prior notification and consultation as well as environmental assessments. He cites as a precedent the recently adopted Mediterranean Sea protocol, that "explicitly prohibits" shipments of hazardous materials through the territorial seas of Mediterranean nations without prior notification and consultation.

The impending shipment of 40 canisters of highly radioactive nuclear waste is to be followed by dozens of shipments, each to carry 150 canisters. It is important, therefore, for en-route states not to allow dangerous precedents to be established because of inaction that shipping states could mistake for acquiescence. Although discussions have been held at the International Maritime Organization, a comprehensive regime governing shipments of ultrahazardous, radioactive cargoes has not yet been established. As Professor Van Dyke notes, the right of coastal nations to use force "makes it all the more desirable and imperative to reach an accommodation and agreement on the creation of an international set of rules to govern the transport of ultrahazardous cargoes."

Use of a transponder to plot the course of such an ultrahazardous transport is no substitute for a binding code to protect the interests of states along the route, but it at least would provide precise information not presently available on the location of the transport. And the use of coast guard vessels by en-route states would provide further assurances and security.

We urge the Government of South Africa, therefore, to ask that the Government of Japan share the radio frequency of the ship's transponder signal with South Africa. We also urge the Government of South Africa to make use of its coast guard with respect to this transport. Finally, we hope South Africa will actively support the proposal of Argentina and others at the IMO for a binding code for shipments of radioactive materials that would require prior notification of voyages, advance consultation on emergency-response planning, a clear-cut liability regime and a demonstrated ability to salvage lost cargoes.

Thank you for your consideration of this proposal.


Paul Leventhal

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