October 1999

Plutonium Shipment to Japan is Unlawful and Vulnerable U.S. and British Government Documents Reveal

Joint press release by Greenpeace International and the Nuclear Control Institute, Washington D.C., September 30, 1999

[Posted 04/10/1999]

Washington-- The United States and Japan unlawfully authorized a shipment of a half-ton of plutonium now arriving in Japan, and the State Department misled Congress about the adequacy of security arrangements for the shipment, according to government documents released today by the Nuclear Control Institute and Greenpeace.

The shipment involves two armed British freighters carrying the weapons-usable plutonium in the form of 40 fuel assemblies from Great Britain and France to two nuclear power plants in Japan. If hijacked, there is sufficient plutonium in the fresh fuel elements, removable by straightforward chemical means, for building at least 60 atomic bombs. Over the summer, the ships went around Africa's Cape of Good Hope and through the South Pacific despite the protests of many nations along the route. One ship has unloaded its cargo and the other is about to do so.

"The documents we are making public today make clear that the transportation plan the State Department presented to Congress fails to meet treaty obligations with Japan that are mandated by U.S. law to ensure `adequate physical security will be maintained"over plutonium shipments to Japan," said the two watchdog organizations in a joint statement at a press conference today. "Physical protection of this shipment of weapons-usable plutonium has been inadequate from the start, and we will consider all options, including going to court, if necessary, to prevent the next shipment from proceeding unless all security requirements are met."

Under terms of the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, shipments of U.S.-controlled plutonium to Japan must be "escorted from departure to arrival by an armed escort vessel," which is further defined as "either a maritime safety/coast guard vessel or any other ship on government service authorized and fully capable of protecting the transport ship and its cargo and of deterring acts of theft and sabotage."

In 1992, Japan responded to this requirement by using a dedicated "plutonium escort vessel," a $100-million frigate built by the Maritime Safety Agency (Coast Guard), to escort a Japanese- flagged British freighter carrying more than a ton of bulk plutonium oxide from France to Japan. The plutonium was designated for use in Japan's demonstration plutonium breeder reactor, but is now being stockpiled. In 1999, however, Japan refused to agree to the same escort arrangement for themaiden voyage of fabricated plutonium "mixed-oxide" (MOX) fuel assemblies from the UK and France for use in Japan's conventional nuclear power reactors.

Despite the arrangement agreed to in 1992, the State Department consented to a Japanese plan to drop the requirement for a separate armed escort vessel. Instead, the new plan permits two civilian British freighters, each carrying plutonium fuel, to escort each other to Japan, armed with 30 mm cannons and manned by a civilian crew and guards from the UK Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary.

In briefings to Senate Proliferation Subcommittee Ranking Minority Member Daniel Akaka (D-HI), House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), and other members of Congress in April, the State Department provided assurances that this transportation plan will be "no less rigorous than the measures applied" to Japan's 1992 shipment of plutonium. They noted in particular that "the two armed vessels will be `on government service"because the shipments will be carried out by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL), a corporation wholly-owned by the British Government."

After British lawyers for Greenpeace International challenged the validity of this rationale under British law, Senator Akaka sent a letter to Secretary of State Albright raising concerns. A British Member of Parliament, David Chaytor, also raised concerns in a letter to Minister of State for Energy and Industry John Battle.

The responses provided by the U.S. and British governments to these letters now make clear that the two armed freighters are not regarded by either government as having the status of "ships on government service" under international law of the sea. The State Department, in a paper sent to Akaka, conceded that while "`on government service"has a particular meaning under the international law of the sea....the Department official who led the negotiation" of the original nuclear transport agreement with Japan in 1988 "confirms that it was not the intent of the negotiators to employ the phrase in the law of the sea sense...." Nonetheless, the State Department asserted, "it is fully documented that the Government of the United Kingdom takes full responsibility for the security of the shipment...."

Not so, according to the British Energy and Industry Minister. "The vessels are civilian vessels engaged in commercial cargo operations. They have no special status," wrote Minister Battle. He stated that while the government "will respond as necessary to any matter requiring its attention," he asserted that "the operation of the ships is the responsibility of BNFL." The government, he said, had worked out rules of engagement with BNFL, but he also specified that "any decision to use armed force to counter an armed terrorist attack...would rest with the ship's Master, who would be advised by the UKAEA Constabulary escort commander."

Nuclear Control Institute and Greenpeace International released analyses by their respective lawyers sharply challenging the lawfulness of the arrangement with ships not on government service. NCI President Paul Leventhal and Greenpeace Nuclear Campaigner Damon Moglen both warned that this legal defect only underscored their concerns about inadequate physical protection of plutonium shipments to Japan.

"The Japanese transport plan for this shipment is in breach of the U.S.-Japan agreement," said Moglen. "The State Department misled Congress into believing that this inadequate plan is in compliance with the agreement. There could be as many as 80 more plutonium shipments to Japan. This is a scandal of the highest order. By cutting safety and security provisions for this reckless shipment, Japanese and U.S. officials with French and British counterparts have endangered dozens of countries around the globe."

"These slow moving freighters don't even have anti-missile armaments despite a warning from the Joint Chiefs of small, fast terrorist boats armed with anti-ship missiles," said Leventhal. "It's doubtful that the British Navy could respond fast enough to prevent a plutonium cargo from sinking and endangering a valuable fishery, or being hijacked and made into bombs. Just because these ships made it to Japan safely without a military escort does not mean the next one will. We'll consider legal action to stop the next shipment unless there's a separate military escort vessel."

Contact: Damon Moglen, Greenpeace International +1-202-319-2409 Paul Leventhal, Nuclear Control Institute : +1-202-822-8444

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