FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Tom Clements
Monday, May 17, 1999 202-822-8444
U.S. GOVERNMENT APPROVES TRANSPORT PLAN
FOR FIRST PLUTONIUM "MOX" FUEL SHIPMENT
FROM EUROPE TO JAPAN
Washington -- The U.S. Government has approved a security plan for the first commercial shipment from Europe to Japan of plutonium fuel, the Nuclear Control Institute disclosed today. The plan does not include the armed escort vessel used for a previous non-commercial shipment of separated plutonium. Details of the plan are contained in a letter sent from the State Department to a member of the House International Relations Committee.
"We view the plan to ship weapons-usable plutonium absent a military escort to be a proliferation risk which the world can ill afford," said Tom Clements, executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute. "This shipment represents a sharp departure with past security requirements for plutonium and marks a failure of U.S. non-proliferation policy," said Clements.
The MOX shipment is scheduled to be loaded in Britain and France after being fabricated at factories owned by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) in Britain and Belgonucleaire in Belgium. The shipment, believed to consist of 40 fuel assemblies containing about 450 kg U.S.-origin of weapons-usable plutonium, would be sent to two nuclear utilities in Japan (Kansai Electric Power Company and Tokyo Electric Power Company) and would be used in Japan for the first time on a commercial scale in light-water reactors. In the future, dozens of such shipment could follow from the European MOX factories, presenting attractive targets for theft.
The U.S.-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement of 1988 requires that the U.S. approve transport security arrangements for plutonium extracted from U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel. Rather than requiring a military-type escort vessel, as was the case for a plutonium shipment to Japan in 1992, the State Departments Bureau of Political-Military Affairs has bowed to Japanese pressure and has dropped this demand. Instead, two freighters owned by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) have been outfitted with 30mm naval guns and will travel together without armed military escort. The two ships, the Pacific Teal and Pacific Pintail, are currently being outfitted for their voyage in the shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, UK.
In the April 27 letter and attached 2-page fact sheet, the State Department explains its position on how the physical protection measures of the U.S.-Japan nuclear agreement have been met, but the approval is at odds with past interpretations on security requirements for such shipments. As recently as 1996, Strobe Talbott, then Acting Secretary of State, indicated in a letter to Representative Benjamin Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, that "physical protection for MOX shipments would be no less rigorous than the measures applied" to a controversial 1992 shipment of 1.5 tons of separated plutonium from France to Japan. That shipment was escorted by a highly maneuverable, fast Japanese Maritime Safety Agency (coast guard) cutter. Mr. Talbott goes on to reiterate in his letter that the U.S. did not anticipate agreeing to any alternative security arrangements not requiring an armed escort the entire voyage. In a February 11, 1999 letter to Secretary of State Albright, Chairman Gilman once again expressed his concern about the security arrangements being considered for the upcoming shipment.
The May 13 Janes Information Group Foreign Report added an influential voice in the shipment matter, saying in an article that the lightly-armed MOX ships are only "capable of repelling a lightly armed attack." The article in the highly-respected publication goes on to state that the Clinton administration lacks the political will to confront Britain, France and Japan over the shipment and that a "satisfactory escort for a plutonium cargo is at least one well armed frigate."
"Reflecting the Administrations relaxed atmosphere toward curbing plutonium, the State Department has caved in to the Japanese plutonium industrys desire to cut expenses and to put a benign face on the MOX shipment by eliminating a dedicated military vessel," said Clements. "The U.S. should stand firm and require a military escort. But commercial and political concerns have taken precedent over prudent non-proliferation policy."
According to both the U.S. Department of Energy and the International Atomic Energy Agency, MOX fuel must receive the highest level of physical protection because it contains weapons-usable plutonium. In a January 1997 DOE nonproliferation assessment of disposition of weapons plutonium , the DOE stated that "fresh MOX fuel remains a material in the most sensitive safeguards category, because plutonium suitable for use in weapons could be separated from it relatively quickly and easily." A 1996 "Proliferation Vulnerability Red Team Report" by Sandia National Laboratory estimates that a team of four people in a matter of a few weeks could remove weapons-usable plutonium from MOX fuel pellets and put it in a form suitable for use in weapons.
MOX fuel generates controversy continues in all countries planning to use it. At a hearing on April 27, Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke out strongly against a U.S.-Russian plan to use MOX made from military plutonium in civilian nuclear power reactors. Helms said that "the MOX option will undercut the decades-long, bipartisan effort by the United States to make clear that plutonium use for commercial power generation is a "no-no" and that by using weapon-grade MOX that "the Administration is virtually guaranteeing that weapons grade plutonium is spread around the world."
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