[NCI Logo]

Tuesday, March 10, 1998

CONTACT: Sharon Tanzer


Washington-The first ship to transit the Panama Canal with a cargo of deadly nuclear-reprocessing waste is expected to arrive today in the Port of Mutsu-Ogawara with the protests of angry states in its wake.

The Pacific Swan left France on January 21 carrying 30 tons of highly radioactive waste from the reprocessing of Japanese spent nuclear fuel to obtain plutonium. The British ship entered the Caribbean Sea by a secret route in early February, but was forced to disclose its position in response to a lawsuit by Puerto Rican environmental associations seeking to bar this and future nuclear-waste shipments from entering the Caribbean.

In the Panama Canal, Greenpeace demonstrators boarded the ship and unfurled a "Stop Plutonium" banner from a mast. "The ease with which these peaceful demonstrators made their way on board was a wake-up call on the vulnerability of the ship to terrorist attack in the Canal," said Paul Leventhal, president of Nuclear Control Institute. "Shipments of Japan's plutonium fuel are already barred by the United States from the Canal. Shipments of the deadly waste from producing the plutonium fuel should be barred as well."

The United States banned shipments of U.S.-controlled, Japanese plutonium from the Canal after elaborate U.S. military arrangements were needed to protect such a shipment through the Canal in 1984. Plutonium fuel shipments are banned from the Canal because of the risk of theft of the weapons-usable nuclear material. But Leventhal noted that reprocessing waste shipments are vulnerable to sabotage, based on a recent study by the U.S. Sandia National Laboratories showing that it could take terrorists less than 20 minutes to breach the 100-ton shipping casks and disperse their radioactive contents with explosives.

"Inside the shipping casks are 60 canisters containing concentrated waste that is more intensely radioactive than spent reactor fuel and contains more deadly cesium than was released in the Chernobyl accident," Leventhal said. He cited studies by the Nuclear Control Institute showing that the canisters are made of a type of stainless steel that is subject to corrosion and leakage.

"The choice of a defective steel for packaging the waste is a major concern not only in the event of an accident or act of sabotage at sea, but also in terms of interim storage of the waste after its arrival in Rokkasho-mura," Leventhal said. "We have briefed Aomori Governor Kimura on this problem, and he has posed questions to officials responsible for safe storage of the waste at Rokkasho-mura. One of the reasons why this waste should be moved out of the prefecture into a permanent geological repository as soon as possible is that the longer it remains in interim storage, the more likely the steel canisters will corrode and cause radioactive contamination."

The NCI studies also reveal that the o-ring seals used on the lids of the shipping casks are made with a rubber-like material that could fail rapidly in a fire or a sinking, leading to radioactive releases during transport by sea.

"None of the health, terrorism and proliferation risks associated with plutonium and its waste products are necessary because plutonium fuel is unnecessary and uneconomical," Leventhal said. "Japan is causing deep international concerns by insisting on using this atom-bomb material as fuel to generate electricity when cheap, non-weapons-usable uranium is so abundant now and for the foreseeable future. The dangers being imposed on the populations, fisheries and tourism industries of the states in the path of these shipments are totally avoidable."

Alternative routes around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope were chosen for two previous reprocessing-waste shipments before the current shipment was sent through the Canal over the strong protests from numerous states.

Latin American and Caribbean states joined to condemn the dangers these shipments pose "to the populations and the ecosystem in a region recognized as the first Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the world," in a statement released by OPANAL, the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, which was established by the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco.

The Caribbean High Commissioners of the British Commonwealth called on Britain, France and Japan "not to consider any new contracts for reprocessing (Japanese) spent nuclear fuel" because they will lead to "more dangerous shipments of spent nuclear fuel, high level nuclear waste and weapons-usable plutonium through the Caribbean."

The Heads of Government of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States appealed to the international community to "unite in their condemnation of this most dangerous practice" and to "stop these shipments forthwith."

The Government of the Bahamas condemned "the insensitivity and lack of moral conscience" of a few countries "for whom short-term technological and economic gains are more important than an enlightened, preventive hazardous waste management ethic and practice."

Dozens of nations in the Latin American and Pacific regions protested the two earlier waste shipments. The current and previous protest statements, the NCI safety analyses, and the Sandia terrorism study are all available on a special section of the NCI Website: http://www.nci.org/seatrans.htm

[What's New] What's New[Sea Shipments] Sea Shipment Page[Home Page]Home Page