[NCI Logo]

CONTACT: Sharon Tanzer

Friday, January 10, 1997


WASHINGTON--Warning that defective packaging of highly radioactive nuclear waste poses a threat to people and marine life if a freighter soon to carry the waste were to sink in coastal waters, the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) today called on nations in the ship's path to demand access to an on-board navigational signal and to deploy their coast guard to ensure the vessel remains well offshore.

A British-flag ship, the Pacific Teal, is expected to depart next week from Cherbourg, France, for Rokkasho, Japan, with a cargo of ultra-hazardous nuclear waste in the form of 40 intensely radioactive glass logs. The waste is a byproduct of French processing of spent fuel from Japanese nuclear power reactors to obtain plutonium, which is also shipped back to Japan. A French diplomatic note leaked to Greenpeace reports the ship will follow a route down the western coasts of Europe and Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, through the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand and near a number of Pacific Islands before reaching Japan.

In a letter to the governments of en-route states, NCI noted that the now-secret signal from the ship's automatic voyage monitoring system could provide them precise information on the ship's whereabouts. Repeated requests by coastal states to Japan for advance notification of the route and consultation on emergency response plans have been denied.

At a London meeting of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in March, salvage experts conceded they have had no experience raising highly radioactive cargos. A study by NCI scientific director, Edwin Lyman, finds there could be a rapid leaching of radioactive poisons following a collision and sinking in which the outer shipping casks were damaged. Very high radiation exposures could soon result because the stainless steel used by France and Britain to package the glass logs is a type vulnerable to rapid corrosion in sea water, exposing the glass waste and making prompt salvage both imperative and difficult, according to Dr. Lyman.

In its letter, NCI also urged en-route states to deploy their coast guard both to ensure the ship steers clear of their maritime zones and to provide security in the absence of an armed escort vessel. Nations not consulted in advance have the right under international law to use force to block passage through their maritime zones of an ultrahazardous transport, according to a legal analysis prepared for Nuclear Control Institute by Professor Jon Van Dyke of the University of Hawaii Law School. He noted that 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."

Discussions have taken place at the IMO in London on a comprehensive set of rules governing shipments of ultra-hazardous radioactive cargo, but no agreement has been reached. Last year Chile used a gunboat to force a British nuclear waste freighter to change course and leave Chilean waters.

An initial shipment of 28 waste canisters sailed around South America's Cape Horn to Japan a year ago, avoiding the Caribbean Sea and Panama Canal after strong protests there. The impending pilot shipment of 40 canisters will be followed by dozens of 150-canister shipments of radioactive waste. "It is important, therefore," NCI president Paul Leventhal wrote to the governments, "not to allow dangerous precedents to be established because of inaction that shipping states could mistake for acquiescence."

NCI's letter and reports are available for downloading from a special sea-shipment section of its Web site (www.nci.org/seatrans.htm). Greenpeace can be reached at 202-319-2506 or 319-2513.

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