Plutanic Ship

Frequently Asked Questions About Nuclear Waste Shipments

Sharon Tanzer

Nuclear Control Institute
Updated January 12, 2000

1. What kind of nuclear waste is being shipped?

On December 29, 1999, a British-flagged freighter, the Pacific Swan, departed France bound for Japan with a cargo of more than 40 metric tonnes of highly radioactive nuclear waste. The waste results from French reprocessing of spent fuel from Japanese power reactors to extract plutonium. The reprocessing waste is a highly radioactive liquid that is turned into glass logs ("vitrified") for long-term storage and disposal in Japan. Both plutonium and vitrified waste are being returned to Japan. The current shipment is exclusively vitrified waste.

The Pacific Swan's cargo consists of four large shipping casks containing a total of 104 glass logs. Each log is packed in a stainless steel canister, weighs half a ton and contains deadly amounts of cesium, strontium, curium and americium. Each shipping cask of vitrified waste contains twice the radioactivity of a typical spent-fuel cask and six times as much cesium-137---approximately the amount of cesium-137 released by the Chernobyl accident. Cesium-137 is a very dispersible, highly toxic and long-lived radioactive poison.

2. Why are shipments of nuclear waste taking place at all?

In its quest for energy security, Japan plans to use plutonium-fueled breeder reactors which in theory produce more plutonium than they consume. While this plan may have made sense decades ago when uranium appeared to be scarce, plutonium today is four to eight times more expensive than uranium, which is now an abundant and inexpensive nuclear-reactor fuel. Plutonium today only has value as as a nuclear-weapons material.

A serious accident in 1995 at Japan's prototype breeder reactor, Monju, followed by two other breeder-related accidents, including one that killed a nuclear worker, have shut down the breeder program and halted efforts to introduce plutonium fuel in Japan. Japanese government and industry want to use plutonium in conventional nuclear power reactors that run normally on low-enriched uranium unsuitable for weapons. Japan's program to produce and use weapons-usable plutonium as fuel is causing concern among Japan's neighbors and destabilizing the Asia-Pacific region.

3. How many nuclear waste transports by sea have already taken place?

February 1995:    Pacific Pintail sailed around Cape Horn with 28 canisters of VHLW.

January 1997:    Pacific Teal sailed around Cape of Good Hope with 40 canisters of VHLW.

January 1998:    Pacific Swan sailed through Panama Canal with 60 canisters of VHLW.

February 1999:  Pacific Swan sailed through Panama Canal with 40 canisters of VHLW.

January 2000:   Pacific Swan scheduled to sail through Panama Canal with 106 canisters of VHLW.

4. How many nuclear waste transports by sea will there be?

More than 3,000 canisters of vitrified nuclear waste are to be returned to Japan from France and Britain. There were 28 canisters in the first shipment in 1996, 40 canisters in the second shipment in 1997, 60 canisters in the 1998 shipment, and 40 canisters in 1999. Future shipments will carry 150 canisters. At least 15 to 30 shipments are likely over a 15-year period.

Nearly two tons of plutonium, which is intensely toxic as well as usable in nuclear weapons, was shipped to Japan in 1992. Japan is constructing a domestic reprocessing plant to extract plutonium from its spent fuel, but shipments of nuclear waste from France to Japan will continue. In all, about 70 tonnes of plutonium and 1500 tonnes of vitrified waste will have to be shipped.

5. What emergency-response arrangements have been made with local authorities?

Despite repeated requests by governments along the ship's possible routes, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, the largest shareholder in the Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd. shipping company, insists "there is no special need for emergency plans to be coordinated with other countries in advance." Why not? According to BNFL, "the ship would not necessarily head towards the nearest port to seek assistance," apparently preferring to either repair the ship at sea or to scuttle the ship after an accident.

6. How safely is the nuclear waste packaged?

There are serious deficiencies in the containment system used for packaging the nuclear waste. Although the Nuclear Control Institute first disclosed these over three years ago, there has been no visible attempt by the shippers to correct them. In the event of a severe accident, there is a very real possibility that a major release of radioactive material could occur.

For instance, a long, hot shipboard fire could cause a simultaneous failure of the three levels of the containment system: the shipping cask, the stainless steel canister and the glass log itself. The lid of the shipping cask is sealed with an O-ring made of a rubber-like material, which is essential to prevent the escape of radioactive gases or small particles from the interior of the cask. However, this material loses its ability to seal at temperatures of 250 degrees C and greater. Considering that the initial temperature of the seal during transport is already over 150 degrees C, because of the heat given off by the nuclear waste, a fire of only a couple of hours' duration would be sufficient to cause the seal to fail.

The stainless steel canister that encases the vitrified waste is supposed to play an important role in ensuring the safety of transport, handling and storage of the material. However, the type of stainless steel used by France to package the glass logs undergoes transformation ("sensitization") at the high temperatures at which the molten glass is poured into the canister, making the steel vulnerable to cracking and to rapid corrosion in sea water.

Also, the glass log itself would provide little containment in the event of a severe fire, since it would soften and expand considerably, rupturing the stainless steel canister and allowing Cs-137 to be released in gaseous form.

7. What would happen if the nuclear waste ship sank?

If a nuclear waste ship and its cargo were lost at sea, severe health consequences for humans and marine life could occur, according to a paper by Dr. Edwin Lyman, scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute. The loss of a damaged cargo in coastal waters could cause levels of chronic exposure to the public far in excess of those permitted by international standards.

If a damaged shipping cask were lost at sea in shallow waters following a collision, the stainless steel canisters would come in contact with highly corrosive seawater almost immediately, causing the glass waste to leach and release cesium, americium and curium. As much of these radionuclides would be released in the first month as in the following 11 months, making prompt salvage both imperative and difficult, according to Dr. Lyman. Because of the sensitization problem, this type of steel was rejected by the United States and Japan for their domestic waste vitrification programs. But France refuses even to respond to criticism of its choice of steel, much less change to a more resistant form of steel.

8. Could the radioactive waste be salvaged?

The salvage of a damaged nuclear-waste cargo would have to take place within a few months of an accident to prevent a substantial release of contamination. Salvaging a damaged cargo would be immensely difficult, posing great health risks for the salvage crew and surrounding area.

The shipping company, Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd, has provided no evidence that such a hazardous operation is feasible if a cask were damaged and the canisters exposed. At a March 1996 meeting of the International Maritime Organization, convened to discuss sea shipment of ultrahazardous nuclear materials, it became clear that there has been no experience in salvaging a highly radioactive cargo, and no special equipment available for such a dangerous task.

Nor is there any guarantee that salvage would even be attempted. In November 1997, the MS Carla, a Panamanian-flag freighter carrying two canisters of highly radioactive cesium chloride, broke in two during a storm near the Azores and later sank. The French nuclear regulatory agency, DSIN, said there are no plans to recover the canisters, claiming their impact on human health would be negligible.

9. Who is liable for damages if there is contamination from an accident?

There is no comprehensive liability regime adequate to deal with the consequences of an accident involving a nuclear-waste (or plutonium) transport comparable to the international treaty regime established to handle compensation for oil spills. The question of liability has been under discussion at the International Atomic Energy Agency for a number of years.

10. What are the obligations under international law of the shippers---Britain, France and Japan?

The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention imposes an obligation on all states to protect and preserve the marine environment. The "precautionary principle" adopted in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development reinforces this obligation by recognizing the limits of knowledge on the marine environment and by assigning a high priority to exercising caution and avoiding uncertain risks to ensure its protection.

The precautionary principle lays down a set of specific responsibilities that must be met before shipments of unusually hazardous materials may be undertaken. These include the duty to notify and consult other countries and the duty to prepare an environmental impact assessment. In the new regime that is emerging to govern shipments of ultrahazardous materials, "Freedom of navigation is not an absolute freedom and is subject to qualifications in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and other international agreements," according to Prof. Jon Van Dyke of the University of Hawaii Law School, an expert on maritime and international law, in a paper commissioned by the Nuclear Control Institute.

A number of nations vigorously protested previous Japanese plutonium and waste shipments, and Japan responded by modifying the routes. In 1995, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Nauru and Kiribati banned the waste shipment from their EEZs, and Chile even used a gun boat to force the waste ship to alter its course away from Chile. "These claims and response appear to establish a recognition that the normal rights of unimpeded navigational transit do not apply in cases of ultrahazardous cargoes," Professor Van Dyke concludes. Over a dozen en route nations, and such international groups as CARICOM, the Caribbean Community and the South Pacific Forum, protested the 1997 waste shipment.

In March 1996, 13 nations led by Argentina joined together at the International Maritime Organization to urge adoption of a comprehensive, compulsory code of practice for sea transport of radioactive materials that would require prior notification of voyages, advance consultation on emergency-response planning, a clear-cut liability regime, and a demonstrated ability to salvage lost cargoes.

11. What are the legal rights of the en-route states?

Nations not consulted in advance have the right under international law to block passage of the nuclear-waste freighter through their maritime zones, according to another study by Professor Van Dyke for the Nuclear Control Institute. The right of the coastal nations to block passage "makes it all the more desirable and imperative to reach an accomodation and agreement on the creation of an international set of rules to govern the transport of ultrahazardous cargoes," according to Professor Van Dyke. A recently adopted Mediterranean Sea protocol establishes an important precedent by prohibiting shipments of hazardous materials through the territorial seas of Mediterranean nations without prior notification and consultation.

12. What can the en-route states do?

Nations in the path of the Pacific Swan can demand access to the ship's automatic voyage monitoring system that would provide them precise information on the ship's whereabouts. Although access to the transponder signal of an ultrahazardous transport is no substitute for prior notification and consultation, it would at least provide information not presently available on the ship's location. This signal is now available only to a command center operated by the shippers. En-route states could also deploy their coast guard to ensure the ship steers clear of their maritime zones and to provide security in the absence of an armed escort vessel. Finally, they can support initiatives at the IMO and the IAEA to develop a comprehensive, compulsory code for the safe transport of radioactive material, as well as a liability regime for such transports.

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