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HOLD FOR RELEASE:                CONTACT: Tom Clements, Sharon Tanzer
Tuesday, July 13, 1999                                         202-822-8444


Washington-- The first shipment of plutonium fuel for Japanese commercial nuclear power reactors is being readied for departure from Europe this week with light weapons and civilian guards that could not repel an attack by determined terrorists or an outlaw state, the Nuclear Control Institute warned today.

The U.S. State Department bowed to Japanese demands that the shipment---enough plutonium for at least 60 nuclear weapons---not be escorted by a gunboat which Japan had built especially for plutonium fuel transports. The United States has to approve Japanese plutonium transport security plans because the plutonium is derived from U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel.

"State Department approval of this plutonium shipment without an armed military escort is a capitulation to Japanese and European plutonium interests and an abandonment of past commitments to Congress," said NCI President Paul Leventhal. "At a time of growing concern about international terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons, it sets a terrible non-proliferation precedent."

The upcoming shipment from Britain and France contains about half a ton of plutonium in the form of plutonium-uranium, "mixed oxide" (MOX) fuel. In 1992, at U.S. insistence, Japan built and used a $100-million coast guard "plutonium escort vessel" to accompany a plutonium shipment one-third the size of the upcoming one. That plutonium was in a pure form rather than mixed with uranium, and Japan has long insisted that the mixed-oxide fuel requires less security because it cannot be used directly in nuclear weapons. U.S. government nuclear weapons experts point out, however, that fresh MOX fuel requires the same strict security as pure plutonium because the plutonium contained in MOX can be extracted by straightforward chemical means.

In May, Richard J.K. Stratford, director of the State Department Office of Nuclear Energy Affairs, wrote the Japanese government that a revised plan---in which two British freighters will escort each other, armed with light cannon and machine guns and manned with civilian guards---"fully satisfies" the requirement for "adequate physical protection of the nuclear material." This arrangement is expected to establish a precedent for dozens of larger MOX fuel shipments to Japan now planned over the next 10 to 20 years involving more than 50 tons of plutonium.

Especially dangerous, Leventhal said, is the absence of radar-directed anti-missile armaments on board the ships despite a 1988 assessment by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff that maritime transports of plutonium would be vulnerable to "small, fast craft, especially if armed with anti-ship missiles." Leventhal also noted that the threat assessment on which the design of the current security plan is based (the so-called "design basis threat") assumes only an attack by terrorists rather than by an outlaw state or by terrorists supported by such a state.

"Wishful thinking, not the real world, is the basis for these security arrangements," Leventhal said. "There is also the desire by Japanese and European plutonium interests to keep down transport costs and to keep up appearances of plutonium as a benign fuel. To this day, Japan's nuclear power industry denies that plutonium produced and used in power reactors is an atom-bomb material. With this kind of physical protection and public relations, commercial plutonium could become a tempting target for terrorists and nations that want the bomb."

In January 1997, the U.S. Department of Energy declared in a nonproliferation assessment statement that "fresh MOX fuel remains a material in the most sensitive safeguards category, because plutonium suitable for use in weapons could be separated relatively quickly and easily." A year earlier, a "Proliferation Vulnerability Red Team Report" by DOE’s Sandia National Laboratory estimated that in a matter of weeks a team of four people could separate weapons-usable plutonium from fresh MOX fuel pellets and put it in a suitable form for use in nuclear weapons.

NCI and U.S. Government materials on security arrangements for the upcoming plutonium MOX fuel shipment can be downloaded from NCI's website:

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