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Tuesday, March 18, 1997

CONTACT: Sharon Tanzer


Washington---The expected arrival in Japan today of the Pacific Teal after a two-month journey from France with a cargo of ultrahazardous nuclear waste "is but the latest example of how Japan's plutonium program endangers its own citizens and its neighbors," said Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute.

Some 14 nations and three regional organizations have issued statements objecting to the waste shipment. (See list below.) The waste is a byproduct of extracting plutonium from Japanese spent nuclear fuel in France. The plutonium is also shipped to Japan.

Leventhal recently returned with a Greenpeace delegation from a trip to several southwest Pacific countries, where government officials expressed concern as to the whereabouts of the British-flag freighter while Cyclone Gavin moved through their region. Leventhal warned that had the Pacific Teal gone down in the storm, it could have contaminated one of Japan's principal closest fisheries because of serious flaws in the packaging of the highly radioactive waste on board.

"Governments in the region had no idea where the ship was or whether it might have to seek shelter from the storm because its whereabouts were kept under a shroud of secrecy," Leventhal said. En-route states last heard from the ship on February 26, when it radioed its position in the Tasman Sea (between Australia and New Zealand) to New Zealand's Meteorological Service, according to details revealed in a debate in the New Zealand Parliament witnessed by Leventhal.

"After that, when the ship needed to cross from this international waterway into the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones of a number of Pacific island nations to make its way to Japan, the ship did not disclose its position to any of the affected states even with Cyclone Gavin raging through the region," Leventhal said. "A navy official of one of these nations expressed concern that British authorities, who had briefed him earlier, did not seem familiar with how to avoid or get out of Pacific cyclones which are common at this time of year."

Leventhal continued: "Emergency response is a weak point in Japan's plutonium program, as made clear by the major mistakes made after the fire and explosion that contaminated 37 workers at the Tokai-mura reprocessing plant last week and the sodium leak that shut down the Monju breeder reactor in 1995. Nor has Japan's government-run plutonium company been candid about the dangers of plutonium, as it made evident in its 'Pluto-Boy' video which falsely depicted the toxic and explosive fuel as safe enough to drink and unsuitable for nuclear weapons."

The Nuclear Control Institute issued a number of reports revealing that in the event of a shipboard fire, or a collision and sinking at sea, the highly radioactive cargo could be rapidly dispersed because of the use of faulty rubber-like seals and stainless-steel canisters to package the waste. "The impact on commercial fishing, the lifeblood of Pacific-island nations and a staple of the Japanese diet, could be catastrophic," Leventhal said.

Japanese, British and French officials have not refuted the Institute's technical findings. Recently, NCI and Greenpeace presented these findings to officials in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Federated States of Micronesia and explored with them their rights under international law to exclude these shipments from their maritime zones. The legality of the nuclear waste shipments, and of related shipments of plutonium from Europe to Japan, is being discussed this week in Fiji by member states of the South Pacific Forum.

"Japanese, British and French officials are claiming unrestricted freedom of navigation and sailing these ultrahazardous nuclear cargos in defective containers where they please, including their neighbors' maritime zones," Leventhal said. "Nations should bar future shipments from their zones until the shippers agree to prior notification of the route, advance consultation on emergency plans, a full environmental-impact assessment, a formal liability regime, and a demonstrated salvage capability." A mandatory code to establish these conditions is now under discussion at the International Maritime Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Leventhal concluded: "Nuclear reactors in Japan and elsewhere can be run more safely, securely and economically without plutonium. Japan should heed the lessons of Monju and Tokai-mura. Chief Cabinet Spokesman Seiroku Kajiyama recently admitted, 'We were overconfident about safety.' Japan has been lucky so far to avoid more serious accidents. Japan should not have to wait for a catastrophe before halting its reckless plutonium program."

NOTE: Statements objecting to the nuclear waste shipments were issued by the following nations and regional organizations: Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, the Cook Islands, Ireland, Kiribati, Malaysia, Mauritius, Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, South Africa Government, Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Caribbean High Commissioners, and the South Pacific Forum.

VISIT NCI's Website [http://www.nci.org/seatrans.htm] for texts of these statements, as well as a map of the ship's route, NCI's technical and legal studies, and other key documents.

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