November 6, 1998
The Honorable Madeleine Albright
Secretary of State
Washington, D.C. 20520
Dear Madam Secretary:
We are writing to express our deep concern about the security of Franco-British shipments of intensely radioactive, vitrified high-level waste (VHLW) bound for Japan through the Panama Canal. Information we have received in response to FOIA requests by Greenpeace makes clear that security at the Canal was "dysfunctional"--the term used by a Canal administrator --- during the first transit of such a cargo aboard the Pacific Swan in February 1998. Given the shippers' frequently professed concerns about security, we were astonished to discover how thoroughly inept and ineffective were the security arrangements at the Panama Canal. In fact, essential elements of the security system did not work.
The U.S. Government, which effectively controls the Panama Canal Commission and the Canal, should investigate these appalling security lapses and re-examine sabotage scenarios before deciding whether any additional VHLW shipments --- or, for that matter, shipments of spent fuel, plutonium or mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel --- should be permitted to transit the Canal.
According to the Canal's security director, the list of security failures included the "dysfunctional communication. command and control between the SMN (National Maritime Service) patrol boats and PCC (Panama Canal Commission) security." There was no communication between the SMN patrol boats and the PCC security forces, nor did they communicate with the Pacific Swan. The National Maritime Service patrol boats never arrived to escort the Pacific Swan from the approach to the Canal to the first of the locks. And the Panama Canal Commission security force appears to have consisted of only three transit-security guards who boarded the ship with the pilot.
Thus, there was no perimeter security around the Pacific Swan, and there was an ineffective guard force on deck. Greenpeace demonstrators were able to approach and board the ship without being challenged. The shipper, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), later told Canal authorities that the crew had been instructed "not to try and repel boarders but to assist those illegally boarding the ship 'for safety/liability purpose. "' However, ship-deck watch had mistaken the Greenpeace boarders for Canal security personnel and were caught by surprise.
Clearly, had the ship been boarded by a group of well-armed attackers instead of peaceful demonstrators, its cargo would have been in grave jeopardy, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the people of Panama. The nighttime transit favored an attack force because "lighting on deck was non- existent on the portside where Greenpeace boarded .
There was also the problem of conflicting priorities. The ship's master did not inform the pilot for 45 minutes of the presence of protestors on board. It was an hour before the Canal security transit guards on board the ship were told that Greenpeace demonstrators had boarded the vessel. The security director's post-mortem memorandum acknowledges that the ship's master "was admittedly concerned more with the navigation of the vessel through the breakwater than with the fact that Greenpeace had boarded his ship." The report concludes, "Lack of timely communications between the vessel's master and the PCC pilot/security chief precluded any immediate action against the Greenpeace protestors." Certainly, the responsibility of the pilot must be the ship's safe passage through the Canal. However, it remains unclear who is responsible for responding to a breach of security during transit of the Canal.
Attached to this letter is the report of Charles Morris, the Panama Canal Commission's Director of Safety, Environment and Security, on the "'Pacific Swan' Greenpeace Incident."
Given the ineffectiveness of Canal security as detailed in this report, a thorough evaluation of sabotage scenarios for commercial vitrified-waste shipments is urgently needed. A January 1997 report by Sandia National Laboratories describes a credible theft scenario. ("Proliferation Vulnerability Red Team Report" in the Department of Energy's Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons- Usable Fissile Material Storage and Excess Plutonium Disposition Alternatives In a two-stage attack, terrorists use a shaped charge to penetrate the cavity of a VHLW shipping cask containing canisters of nuclear waste with imbedded warhead plutonium. They then inject a low-explosive charge to blow off the lid of the cask to facilitate theft of the undamaged canisters within.
The Sandia analysis, however, suggests a credible sabotage scenario for commercial vitrified waste shipments by noting that "excessive explosive charge size can rupture and deform" the waste canisters within the cask. The Sandia report did not analyze what effect the injection of a high-explosive charge in the cask cavity would have. We believe such a charge would cause serious damage to the radioactive contents and would likely result in the expulsion of pulverized glass both in the form of respirable particles and non-respirable fragments. Such a two-stage attack utilizing high explosives in the Panama Canal could result in both the sinking of the ship and the dispersal of deadly radioactive material over a large area. The environmental and economic consequences of such an attack would be catastrophic. We request that Sandia be directed to carry out this further study before any additional high- level vitrified waste shipments are permitted to pass through the Canal.
At this point, we have little confidence that security and emergency-response problems at the Panama Canal have been given the attention they deserve. For example, in response to an inquiry by the Nuclear Control Institute as to what arrangements were being made to ensure that the Government of Panama would have adequate capabilities to deal with a radiological disaster in the Canal after assuming control in the year 2000, the Secretary of the Commission responded: "As part of the transition effort, the U.S. has been working diligently with Panama to ensure that ample and effective safety, security and emergency-response procedures will continue." (Emphasis supplied. Letter from John A. Mills, Secretary of the Commission, Jan. 28, 1998.)
While the Nuclear Control Institute does not participate in demonstrations against nuclear facilities and transports, it nonetheless joins with Greenpeace in emphasizing that the unchallenged boarding of the Pacific Swan makes clear that "ample and effective safety, security and emergency-response procedures" were not in place.
Since the next shipment of VHLW may be imminent, we urge that use of the Canal for this and subsequent shipments be denied until the assessment we request is completed and its implications for the security of these shipments and the potential consequences for the Canal and surrounding areas are fully analyzed. A new security plan incorporating the results of this sabotage assessment should be developed and tested, and future shipments of VHLW and other highly radioactive and radiotoxic cargos should be barred until such a plan is determined to be feasible and effective.
Thank you for your prompt consideration of this urgent and timely matter. We look forward to receiving your response. A similar letter has been sent to the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Energy.
Nuclear Control Institute
cc: Chairman and Ranking Minority Members:
House Committee on International Relations
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
House Committee on National Security
Senate Armed Services Committee
Secretary, Panama Canal Commission
Ambassador of Panama to the United States
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