[NCI Logo]

Friday, December 13, 1996

CONTACT: Sharon Tanzer



NCI Calls on Shippers to Transmit Ship's Course with Transponder And on Coastal States to Deploy their Coast Guard Vessels


Washington, D.C.---Nations not consulted in advance have the right under international law to use force to block passage through their maritime zones of a British freighter soon to carry highly radioactive waste from France to Japan, according to a legal analysis released today by the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI). The ship is expected to leave Cherbourg in January with a cargo of 40 canisters of the waste.

In the paper prepared for NCI, Professor Jon Van Dyke of the University of Hawaii Law School maintains, "Coastal nations will have proper grounds to use force to prevent these ships from passing through their maritime zones" if the shipping nations continue to refuse to comply with the requests of en-route states for prior notification and consultation.

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," Professor Van Dyke maintains. He noted that Chile last year used a gunboat to force a British nuclear waste freighter to change course and leave Chile's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, commented that since Japan still refuses to disclose the route before the British waste ship leaves France, or to consult with en-route states on emergency measures and liability arrangements, "Japan should at least agree to allow the en-route states to plot the course of the ship by means of a transponder signal." He also called on the en-route states to deploy coast guard vessels both to ensure that the ship steers clear of their maritime zones and to protect the ship against terrorist attack.

"Japan is required by the United States to use an armed escort vessel when shipping plutonium derived from reprocessing U.S.-supplied fuel, but not when shipping the highly radioactive wastes produced from reprocessing," Leventhal noted. "These waste shipments eventually will grow in size to contain almost as much radioactivity as could be released in a reactor accident. If reactors and reprocessing plants must be guarded against sabotage, so should shipments of their waste." Leventhal also noted that the waste ships currently use a transponder to signal their course to Japan, France and Britain, but not to the en-route states. "The nations in the path of the ship have as much right to know where it is as do the shipping states," he said.

Discussions have been held at the International Maritime Organization, but a comprehensive regime governing shipments of ultrahazardous cargoes has not yet been created. The maritime powers argue that they are permitted to ship these wastes under traditional doctrines of innocent passage and the freedom of the seas, but their position ignores the provisions in the 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea Convention and the 1989 Basel Convention on transboundary movement of wastes that require environmental assessments, prior notifications and consultation.

According to Professor Van Dyke, coastal states need consultation "to ensure that these dangerous cargoes pass through the safest sea lanes and to ensure that contingency plans are prepared to deal with accidents that may occur en route."

Two controversial nuclear shipments to Japan took place in 1992 and 1995. In 1992, 40 nations protested a shipment of 1.7 tonnes of plutonium around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. In 1995, a ship carrying nuclear waste around South America's Cape Horn modified its course to avoid the maritime zones of Brazil, Argentina and Chile in response to demands from those countries. Chile sent a gunboat to enforce its demand.

Professor Van Dyke points out that a recently adopted Mediterranean Sea protocol "explicitly prohibits" shipments of hazardous materials through the territorial seas of Mediterranean nations without prior notification and consultation, and thereby "sharply undercuts the position of the maritime nations that such notification and consultation requirements are inconsistent with passage rights under the freedom-of-the-seas doctrine."

Earlier this year, at the International Maritime Organization in London, Argentina led 13 coastal nations along three potential nuclear shipment routes in asking for a binding code requiring prior notification of voyages, advance consultation on emergency-response planning, a clear-cut liability regime, and a demonstrated ability to salvage lost cargos. "The International Maritime Organization is the appropriate forum for the dialogue that must take place, and the two sides should begin without further delay to codify the rules governing the shipments of these extremely poisonous materials," Professor Van Dyke concludes.

Last week, at press conferences with Greenpeace International in Panama City, Panama, and Kingston, Jamaica, NCI released a report by its scientific director, Dr. Edwin Lyman, finding that in the event of a collision at sea resulting in damage to the shipping casks, substantial radioactive contamination could result unless salvage operations were carried out immediately. However, salvaging a damaged, highly radioactive cargo would be "immensely difficult," and there is no evidence that a credible salvage plan exists, Dr. Lyman noted.

The impending shipment of 40 canisters of highly radioactive, vitrified waste is to be followed by dozens of shipments, each to carry 150 canisters. The most convenient shipping route is through the Caribbean Sea and the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to Japan---the route originally used for a 1984 shipment of plutonium from France to Japan. Last year's initial vitrified waste shipment had been expected to take this route, but it followed a different course around Cape Horn following protests in the Caribbean. In 1992, a second shipment of plutonium from France to Japan sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. Trans-Caribbean/Panama appears to be the preferred route, but it is still unclear which route the waste ship will take. Japan recently announced it would reveal the date of departure two days before departure, and the route one day after departure.

The Van Dyke and Lyman reports are available from NCI, or can be downloaded from a new sea-shipment section of NCI's Website (http://www.nci.org/seatrans.htm).

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