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Nuclear Sea Shipments: An Overview

The Nuclear Control Institute seeks to direct international attention to sea shipments of plutonium, and of highly radioactive wastes from plutonium reprocessing, that are now proceeding from Europe to Japan.

We sponsor independent technical analyses of unresolved safety problems. These studies show that the shipping containers are not designed to withstand the effects of collision, fire, and immersion associated with severe accidents in port or at sea. As a result, dozens of en-route nations have protested the shipments directly with the countries involved and at international conferences. Members of Congress from the Pacific and Caribbean have cited our findings in pressing the U.S. government to oppose unsafe shipments.

The first shipment of plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide ("MOX") fuel is proceeding  by sea from Great Britain and France to Japan this summer.  The shipment  contains enough plutonium for 60 nuclear bombs. Japan refuses to provide an armed escort vessel, relying instead on two  lightly-armed freighters manned with civilian guards.  Despite objections from Congress and public-interest groups, the United States approved this shipment security plan earlier this year.  There was strong international reaction to the first commercial shipment of separated plutonium to Japan in 1992.

Five shipments of highly radioactive reprocessing waste have also proceeded from Europe to Japan since 1995.  Waste shipments, more voluminous and intensely radioactive than plutonium shipments, are projected to increase sharply in the next few years, raising concerns about major risks to the environment and to population centers in case of an accident or hostile act.  The  waste shipments have led to an international outcry by over a dozen nations in their path.

In cooperation with Greenpeace International and the International Stop Nuclear Waste Campaign of Japan, and with the governments of  countries in the path of the shipments, we seek to put teeth in safety and environmental codes under review by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

NCI commissioned a study by Prof. Jon Van Dyke of the University of Hawaii Law School, a leading expert on international maritime law, that explores use of the "precautionary principle" established in the Rio Declaration to protect the rights of countries along the routes of hazardous transports.

In another study for NCI, Professor Van Dyke finds that en route states are within their rights under international law to use force to keep nuclear shipments out of their maritime zones if the shipping states refuse to notify and to consult with them in advance on routing, emergency procedures and liability arrangements.

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