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Tuesday, February 16, 1999

CONTACT: Tom Clements


WASHINGTON-- The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) today welcomed concerns raised by the Chairman of the House International Relations Committee about inadequate security arrangements on an impending shipment of U.S.-controlled plutonium fuel from Europe to Japan.

In a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Chairman Ben Gilman said he was "particularly disturbed" that the Clinton Administration, without any formal consultation with Congress, was preparing to approve a transportation plan that did not include an earlier U.S. requirement for an armed escort vessel. Instead, Gilman wrote to Secretary Albright, "...the Clinton Administration, reversing course from previous Administrations, has agreed to an alternative security plan which...envisages two transport ships...which will be fitted together with defensive armaments and travel together."

Gilman's letter, dated February 11, was released today and is available from the House Committee on International Relations (202-225-5021). It noted that under the terms of the 1988 U.S.-Japan Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, the United States must approve security arrangements on plutonium (a nuclear-weapons material) that Japan extracts from U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel for use in its power reactors.

NCI President Paul Leventhal called Gilman's letter "an important expression of Congressional concern about a weak plutonium security plan that the State Department has been trying to sweep under the rug." Leventhal said the State Department went along with a Japanese proposal to eliminate a Japanese coast-guard plutonium escort ship, the Shikishima, which was used in 1992 for a pilot shipment of 1.5 tons of plutonium from France to Japan. "The new plan was conceived by Japanese utility companies that wanted to save money and to avoid the appearance of a military escort for weapons-usable plutonium fuel," Leventhal said. "The State Department agreed, and it has been pressuring the Defense Department and other U.S. agencies to sign off on the plan before consulting with Congress."

The next shipment is to be the first commercial transport of plutonium-uranium, mixed-oxide ("MOX") fuel from Europe to Japan. Since the plutonium can be separated from MOX fuel by straightforward chemical means, it is regarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. Government as containing "direct-use" nuclear-weapons material.

Gilman said in his letter that he was "particularly concerned about the adequacy of physical-protection measures for this shipment because it is the first of many to come and will set a precedent for protection of future shipments. In these times of increasingly sophisticated and ruthless international terrorism, this shipment should be subject to the most stringent physical protection measures." He noted that the freighters "with a top speed of 13 knots, would not appear to have sufficient defensive and deterrent ability much less the maneuverability or speed of military or coast guard escort ships." He called for use of an escort vessel armed with "a radar-directed, anti-missile defense system." The Pentagon had tried but failed to get the Japanese to install such a system on the Shikishima in 1992.

Gilman reminded Secretary Albright of past Administration commitments to maintain security requirements at least equivalent to the 1992 shipment, and to consult with Congress before approving arrangements for future shipments. He asked her to arrange a briefing for his committee that will include representatives of DOD, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the Navy, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Department of Energy.

Last week, the Nuclear Control Institute wrote to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, protesting the inadequate security arrangement and asking him "to inquire into a review process that now seems driven by diplomatic and cost considerations to accommodate Japanese government and commercial interests rather than U.S. common defense and security interests as required by the Atomic Energy Act." This letter, and an earlier letter to Energy Secretary Richardson, are available on the NCI Website:

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