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Paul Leventhal
President, Nuclear Control Institute

A doubly disturbing message to the world was delivered this past week by a British-flagged ship on its way from France to Japan, laden with deadly nuclear waste. First the nuclear-waste ship entered the Caribbean Sea by a secret route, determined to keep worried island and coastal states in the dark as to its whereabouts. Then as the ship entered the Panama Canal, peaceful Greenpeace demonstrators made clear the ship's vulnerability by intercepting and boarding it and hanging a "Stop Plutonium" banner from its highest mast.

This was the first shipment of nuclear waste along this congested route. It demonstrates how insensitive the shipping states are to the legitimate concerns of countries in their path, and how ill-prepared Panama Canal Commission and U.S. Government officials and the shippers themselves are to protect such a dangerous cargo.

Had the ship, the Pacific Swan, foundered in a Caribbean storm or collided with another ship, its intensely radioactive contents could have been dispersed and put nearby populations, as well as the region's tourism and fishing industries, in great peril. On board is a cargo of 30 tons of nuclear waste embedded in 60 steel-encased glass logs which, in turn, are packed in three 100-ton shipping casks.

Industry insists that the packaging is massive and invulnerable. But independent technical studies by the Nuclear Control Institute show that the steel surrounding the glassified waste is defective and subject to rapid corrosion in seawater; also, that the lids of the outer casks are sealed with O-rings made with rubber-like material that would fail quickly in a ship fire or a sinking, letting seawater enter and radioactivity escape. The waste contains 30 million curies of radioactivity, including more than three times the amount of deadly cesium released in the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor. Future shipments will be larger and deadlier.

Had terrorists instead of demonstrators boarded the ship, they could have used high explosives to blow radioactive poisons sky high and sink the ship in the canal. No less an authority than the U.S. Sandia National Laboratories, an elite nuclear- weapons complex, has done a study showing that it could take terrorists only 15 to 30 minutes to penetrate and breach massive nuclear shipping casks like the ones aboard the Pacific Swan.

The health, environmental and economic costs of a severe accident or successful attack would be catastrophic. These may be low-probability events, but their likelihood will increase if dozens, perhaps hundreds, of these shipments proceed routinely along this or other routes, as planned.

If these shipments cannot be stopped, they should proceed only after the complete route is announced well in advance, emergency planning is worked out with en-route states, all outstanding safety questions are resolved to meet severe accident conditions, and adequate liability and salvage arrangements are made beforehand. Efforts by en-route states at the International Maritime Organization to achieve such a strict mandatory code of practice have been thwarted thus far by the nuclear-shipping states.

These shipments also should be accompanied by an armed escort vessel and by armed guards on board. But even then, they should follow routes that keep them far from land---at least beyond nations' 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones---and away from narrow passages, especially the Panama Canal.

But these shipments are as unnecessary as they are dangerous. The waste comes from the "reprocessing" of spent nuclear fuel in France and Britain to obtain plutonium for Japan. Plutonium is a costly and non-essential fuel for generating electricity, but an essential material for making nuclear weapons. The plutonium industry must be stopped if shipments of plutonium and nuclear waste are to be stopped. No new contracts for reprocessing spent fuel should be signed, which means ongoing negotiations between British and French reprocessors and Japanese and South Korean nuclear utilities, should be halted.

If the plutonium industry is allowed to continue business-as-usual, the risks of nuclear accidents, nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism will grow alarmingly. If the Caribbean Sea and the Panama Canal are not to provide the path of least resistance for future nuclear-waste shipments, nations in the region will have to voice their objections loudly enough to be heard.


Paul Leventhal is president of the Nuclear Control Institute, a research and advocacy center in Washington, D.C. that specializes in nuclear proliferation and security problems.

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