JANUARY 19, 2001                  tel. 1-202-822-8444,






Washington, DC---The second sea shipment of U.S.-origin plutonium undertaken during the Clinton Administration is set to depart today from Cherbourg, France for Japan. In the last half of 2000, the U.S. Government secretly reviewed and approved security arrangements for the controversial transport, which consists of 28 mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel assemblies, containing about a quarter-ton of weapons-usable plutonium.


Shipping plutonium around the globe in lightly armed commercial vessels presents a security as well as a proliferation threat and results from a failed policy to curb burgeoning plutonium stockpiles, said Tom Clements, Executive Director of the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) in Washington. NCI is a nuclear non-proliferation center which seeks to halt civilian commerce in plutonium. The security and proliferation risks of these shipments cannot be justified because there is no energy need for plutonium use in Japan, given the glut in non-weapons-usable uranium, said Clements.


The shipment highlights the failure of the 1993 Clinton non-proliferation policy aimed at halting recovery and use of plutonium and presents a challenge to the Bush Administration to readdress plutonium policy. Internationally, weapons-usable plutonium stockpiles have more than doubled under the Clinton Administration, to over 200 tons, with Britain, France, Japan, Germany and Russia holding the largest stocks of this material. Amounts of plutonium separated from spent fuel annually under the Clinton Administration dwarf annual figures for any earlier Administration, with the amount of civilian plutonium now rivaling stocks of weapons-grade plutonium held by the nuclear weapons states.


World Separation of Civil Plutonium Under U.S. Presidents


Click here for full-size color chart


Surpluses of weapons-usable plutonium continue to grow at an alarming rate given unrestrained reprocessing of spent fuel but limited use of plutonium as fresh fuel in European and Japanese reactors. Lack of constraint in plutonium stockpiling is a little-noticed non-proliferation failure of the Clinton Administration, said Paul Leventhal, President of NCI. Although the Clinton Administration turned its back on the proliferation dangers of the buildup of vast quantities of weapons-usable plutonium, we are hopeful that the Bush Administration will thoroughly review the national-security dimensions of this issue and adopt tough policies against plutonium stockpiling and use.


Under the 1988 U.S.-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement, shipments of plutonium are to be undertaken only with an armed escort vessel, but the State Department has reinterpreted the agreement to allow plutonium shipments without military escorts. According to the new interpretation, two British-flagged commercial transport vessels, the Pacific Teal and Pacific Pintail, equipped with light cannon, machine guns and carrying special police, will escort one-another on the 18,000-mile voyage. In order to meet the terms of the 1988 agreement, a shipment of 1.7 tons of plutonium took place in 1992, escorted by a specially-built Japanese coast guard plutonium escort vessel. The current shipment is expected to travel to Japan via South Africas Cape of Good Hope, though the route will not be announced until January 19, the day after departure.


Until recently, Japan shipped thousands of tons of spent fuel to reprocessing factories operated by BNFL and Cogema (France) for reprocessing. In addition to a vast quantity of high-level and low-level nuclear waste, Japan has accumulated over 32 tons of weapons-usable plutonium, with over 28 tons being stockpiled in Europe. Given the failure of earlier plans to use the plutonium in reactors called breeders, capable of producing more plutonium than they consume, plans in Japan and elsewhere have shifted to use of MOX in conventional light-water reactors (LWRs). Due to the poor economics of reprocessing and MOX use and given that LWRs were not designed for MOX use, the plutonium use program in Europe and Japan is coming under increasing technical and economic pressure. Also, the MOX program there is much-delayed and stalled in 1999 when irregularities were discovered in fabrication of the first consignment of MOX fuel shipped from British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) to Japan.


Currently, a shipment of highly radioactive reprocessing waste is being transported from France to Japan. The Pacific Swan, carrying 198 half-ton logs of glassified reprocessing waste, last weekend rounded Cape Horn, South America on a two-month voyage to Rokkasho, Japan, site of temporary storage of high-level waste. The vessel passed through the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of both Argentina and Chile in spite of an assessment by an expert in international maritime law and adviser to NCI which affirms that states have the right to force such vessels carrying ultra-hazardous cargoes out of their EEZs lacking advance consultation and consent by en route states. Such consultation is lacking for the MOX shipment as well, and the shipping states have also ignored pleas from en route states that environmental assessments, adequate emergency and salvage plans, and a comprehensive liability regime be prepared.




Documents on the sea transport of plutonium and high-level waste can be found on the NCI web site at


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