FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                  Contact:Paul Leventhal, Tom Clements

December 20, 2000    phone 1-202-822-8444,

                                                                           fax 1-202-452-0892




Washington, DC---The largest shipment to date of highly radioactive reprocessing waste departed Cherbourg, France on the night of December 19, bound for Japan via Cape Horn, South America. The shipment, aboard the British-flagged vessel Pacific Swan, consists of 8 shipping casks holding 192 half-ton logs of glassified nuclear waste, a byproduct of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to remove weapons-usable plutonium.


In choosing the route through treacherous waters around South America, the shipping companies---British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd., Cogema of France and Japan Nuclear Fuels, Ltd.)---responded to growing concerns in the Caribbean region and Panama over the shipments. This shipment will be the sixth shipment of high-level nuclear waste since the they began in 1995, the last three of which passed through the Panama Canal. This is the first shipment which would have been subject to advance review and consent by the Panamanian Government for passage through the Panama Canal since the Canal passed from U.S. control at the end of 1999.


Panamanian and Caribbean authorities are to be congratulated for their efforts to stop this shipment from transiting their waters because it presents both an environmental risk and a vulnerable target for radiological sabotage, said Paul Leventhal, President of the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington-based nuclear non-proliferation research and advocacy center. Shipments of nuclear waste are potentially attractive targets for terrorists especially through narrow inland passageways such as the Panama Canal or in coastal waters and thus should cease, said Leventhal.


The Pacific Swan, owned by the BNFL-controlled company Pacific Nuclear Transport Limited (PNTL), is bound for Rokkasho, a nuclear facility located at the northern tip of Japans main island of Honshu, and will be placed in indefinite storage there. Rokkasho is the site of construction of Japans large-scale spent fuel reprocessing plant, now estimated to cost about $20 billion. It is losing support due to the diseconomics and the proliferation and security risks of plutonium use.


The route of the ship was announced by Cogema and by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in Japan. In spite of continuous setbacks, Japan is pursuing use of plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel (MOX) in its light-water reactors (LWRs). Implementation of the MOX program in Japan has been delayed due to problems in fabrication of the fuel in the United Kingdom by British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd. (BNFL) and subsequent safety concerns being raised in Japan.


A high-level waste shipment in February 2000, which was authorized in 1999 while the Canal was under U.S. control, transited the Canal with security measures put in place by Panamanian authorities. NCIs Leventhal was invited by Panamanian authorities to observe the passage of that vessel. He found that Panama employed much greater security than when the Canal was under U.S. control, but still inadequate to respond to a terrorist attack. In June, the Panamanian Legislative Assembly sponsored the first-ever forum on nuclear shipments, at which safety and security risks and economic liability of nuclear waste shipments were hotly debated.


While avoidance of the Panama Canal can be considered a victory for Panama and en route countries in the Caribbean, the shipment will still pass close to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile (Southern Cone countries), the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the U.S. state of Hawaii and possessions of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.


In 1995, the only time a nuclear waste shipment went around Cape Horn, Chile dispatched a gun boat to force the waste-laden freighter to turn away from the Chilean coast during a gale. NCI works closely with the governments of en route states that protest the shipments.


While shipments of spent fuel from Japan to the French and British reprocessing site have ceased, there are reports that Japan is currently negotiating with Cogema for a new contract to have 900 metric tones of spent fuel reprocessed at Cogemas la Hague plant.


The reprocessing industry is raising increasing international concerns due to the fact that around 200 metric tonnes of weapons-usable civilian plutonium is now being stockpiled after removal from spent fuel, an amount nearly equivalent to the military stocks of plutonium in the world. Japan, Britain and France lead the way in pursuing use of plutonium as a nuclear power fuel, ignoring strong economic, environmental and non-proliferation arguments against such use and setting a bad example for developing countries. U.S. non-proliferation policy is opposed to separation of plutonium from commercial spent fuel, but the U.S. government refuses to confront Japan, France and the U.K over their increasingly troubled, proliferation-prone plutonium industries.




Note to editors: More information on shipments of plutonium and high-level nuclear waste can be found on the NCI web site at:


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