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Friday, January 22, 1999

CONTACT: Sharon Tanzer, 202-822-8444


Washington-- The Nuclear Control Institute today called on Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to reject as "grossly inadequate" a Japanese plan for protecting a sea shipment of weapons-usable plutonium fuel against terrorist attack.

NCI President Paul Leventhal, in a letter to Richardson, warned that Japan apparently has decided to abandon use of a coast guard gunboat, the Shikashima, which it built for the purpose of escorting a plutonium cargo ship in 1992. Instead, Japan plans to arm two British civilian freighters that would travel together for mutual protection.

"Frankly," Leventhal wrote, "the physical security protection provided under this arrangement appears to be grossly inadequate. Freighters obviously do not have the maneuverability or speed of military or coast guard escort ships such as the "Shikashima", which was commissioned specifically as a plutonium escort vessel."

Leventhal also raised concerns about Japan's refusal to protect the forthcoming plutonium fuel shipment---just as it had refused to protect the 1992 shipment---with radar-directed, anti-missile armaments, despite a Pentagon assessment of the need to protect against terrorists using "small, fast craft armed with ship-to-ship missiles." He warned that even if British guards aboard the freighters are qualified to repel a conventional attack, "their capabilities could be neutralized in an attack involving the use of ship-to-ship missiles."

Japan has refused to disclose details of the security plan for protection of the forthcoming shipment of plutonium recovered from U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel, as have U.S. officials, who must approve the adequacy of the Japanese plan. However, on January 18, British Energy Secretary John Battle announced the plan to use two armed freighters with armed guards to transport mixed-oxide ("MOX") fuel elements to Japan. The fuel is made with plutonium that was extracted from the spent fuel of Japanese nuclear power reactors in a British reprocessing plant.

Leventhal noted that Japan, in a 1988 agreement with the United States, committed to use an armed escort vessel, defined as a "coast guard vessel or any other ship on government service," to protect plutonium cargoes against theft or sabotage. He reminded Richardson that U.S. officials had assured Congress that they could not foresee any alternative security measures, but would submit for Congressional review any subsequent arrangement that "differed significantly" from an armed escort vessel. Leventhal urged Richardson "to reject the transport outright" or, "at a minimum, withhold your consent...until the statutory subsequent arrangement process is completed."

NOTE: The letter is on the NCI website: http://www.nci.org/c/c12199.htm