HOLD FOR RELEASE:
AMs, Wednesday, January 12, 2000
CONTACT: Steven Dolley
FIRST TEST OF PANAMA'S PROTECTION OF NUCLEAR CARGO
TO BE OBSERVED BY NUCLEAR CONTROL INSTITUTE
Washington-- The Nuclear Control Institute, which recently voiced concerns to the Government of Panama about the vulnerability of nuclear cargo ships to terrorist attack in the Panama Canal, today announced it has accepted an offer from the government to observe the first passage of a ship carrying ultra-hazardous nuclear waste since Panama took over the canal on January 1.
"This will be the first demonstration of how Panama protects highly radioactive cargos and an important demonstration of security overall at the canal," said NCI President Paul Leventhal, who will be on hand when a British-flagged freighter enters the canal carrying highly concentrated nuclear waste to Japan. The passage is scheduled for January 17.
"We frankly don't think these intensely radioactive residues of the plutonium fuel industry should be allowed into the canal at all because the consequences of a successful attack or severe accident would be catastrophic," said Leventhal. "But at the very least, these nuclear-waste transports must be seen by potential adversaries as `hard targets', not the soft targets that were previously allowed into the canal with minimal and deficient security."
In February 1998, Greenpeace demonstrators managed to board the first such ship unchallenged, an incident that led the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Commission too conclude that canal securitwas "dysfunctional." In a letter sent January 5 to Panamanian Ambassador Guillermo Ford, NCI warned that if the ship had 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 and the vital interests of Panama."
Ambassador Ford, after meeting with Leventhal and NCI Executive Director Tom Clements, arranged for NCI to be briefed on January 14 at the canal on security arrangements for the forthcoming shipment, and to observe the ship's passage on the 17th. "Nuclear Control Institute appreciates the courtesies being extended by the Panamanian government, but it questions whether an ultra-hazardous nuclear cargo can be adequately protected against attack and sabotage in the canal."
The U.S. government has analyzed a theft scenario in which terrorists use low explosives to lift the lid of a massive, steel shipping cask and remove undamaged nuclear waste canisters containing imbedded cans of weapons plutonium. But U.S. officials have not acted on a request by NCI that the study be reopened to examine the vulnerability of waste transports, both military and civilian, to a sabotage scenario involving use of high explosives to damage and disperse nuclear waste.
"Until such an analysis is undertaken," NCI wrote to Ambassador Ford, "it is imprudent to permit these nuclear waste shipments to proceed through the Panama Canal without extraordinarysecurity, if at all." NCI proposed that Panama call on Japan to pay the extra costs of these security arrangements and of the special traffic-control measures and services necessitated by them. But NCI has found that Panama would be within its rights under both its own law and international law to deny access to the canal of this and any other cargo found to endanger or potentially obstruct the canal.
NCI warned the Panamanian government that the deadly waste, in the form of brittle glass blocks, is "particularly susceptible" to sabotage and missile attack and could be dispersed over a wide area, causing prompt fatalities and latent cancer deaths and rendering the canal inoperable. The concentrated waste cargo now heading for the canal contains more than 14 million curies of cesium-137, a long-lived and intensely radiotoxic isotope, compared with the less than 10 million curies of this isotope in a typical large operating nuclear power reactor.
The nuclear waste ship is the Pacific Swan, the same ship boarded by Greenpeace in 1998. It departed from France on December 29 with 104 canisters in four large shipping casks, containing more than 40 metric tons of waste from a French plant that processes Japanese spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium. The plutonium is a nuclear weapons material that is returned to Japan for use as fuel in power reactors.
The United States, which supplied the original nuclear fuel to Japan, bars Japan from shipping plutonium through the Panama Canal for security reasons, but not the highly radioactive waste residues. Another 15 to 30 nuclear waste shipments are planned over the next 15 years. Japan continues to press the United States for permission to ship plutonium through the canal, as well. Japanese electrical utilities and government agencies recently put the plutonium fuel program on hold, however, because of safety concerns about the fuel being manufactured for Japan in Europe.
Copies of the NCI letter to the Panamanian government, as well other NCI analyses of the safety and security risks of waste transports, can be downloaded from the NCI website