Nuclear transport vessel enters Panama canal under heavy guard to retrieve faulty plutonium MOX from Japan

Press release - 11 May, 2002

The Pacific Pintail, an armed British-flagged nuclear transport ship, entered the Panama Canal at 4.30pm local time, guided by three armed patrol boats and an army helicopter. Armed police prevented Greenpeace campaigners, Panamanian citizens and local media from observing the ship entering the Gatun Lock.

Greenpeace urged en route countries to oppose the shipment before it returns with faulty mixed oxide (MOX) plutonium (1). Threatened countries are prompted to take action to prevent the ships entering their Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ). The Pintail will continue its controversial voyage to Japan as the second armed nuclear transport ship, Pacific Teal, transits the Canal in a few days when it is planned to join the Pintail in Japan as part of a two-ship mission to retrieve the plutonium MOX.

The Public Relations Office of The Panama Canal Authority stated that the passage of the ships would not be made public for security reasons, although the three 30mm cannons on the Pintail are concealed during the 8-hour transit of the Panama Canal. The ships, which departed England together on April 26, are on a journey to recover and return to Britain a rejected consignment of plutonium MOX shipped by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) to Japan in 1999. Originally it was intended to use the MOX as fuel in the Takahama nuclear reactor. The MOX waste contains 255 kilograms of weapons-usable plutonium, enough for 50 nuclear weapons.

"Countries along possible routes of the return plutonium shipment must immediately protest against this unnecessary and provocative transport by BNFL. It is not too late to stop this transport from taking place but time is running out," said Tom Clements of Greenpeace International, who was detained while attempting to observe the Pintail's transit through the Gatun Lock near the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. "En route countries face all the risks and receive no benefits of a deadly cargo best left in Japan to be managed as nuclear waste."

An empty cask to transport the MOX waste was loaded on the Pintail just before its departure from England. Japan, which has been engaged in a failed decade-long effort to use MOX fuel, rejected the MOX for the Takahama reactor after it was revealed that BNFL's manufacture of it did not meet critical quality control safety specifications, and it was revealed that BNFL had deliberately falsified vital safety data.

The return voyage of the two ships could begin as early as the second half of June. The two lightly-armed vessels will endeavour to protect one another from attack aimed at stealing the weapons material on board or using explosives against the ship which could disperse large amounts of radiological material. In spite of the heightened concern caused by the September 11th attack, the shippers have failed to prepare a security threat assessment on the shipment.

The transit of the vessels is taking place before the Environment Committee of the Panamanian Legislative Assembly meets to debate a law banning all transit through the Panama Canal of radioactive waste and plutonium. That law appears to have Committee support but will be hotly debated in the full assembly. Britain, France and Japan, all of which engage in state-supported nuclear transport, have applied pressure to Panama not to ban the shipments.

The shipment runs contrary to various provisions of the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. This includes lack of preparation of an environmental impact assessment; lack of prior consultation with en route states; and lack of a liability regime needed in case of damage resulting from accident or radiological sabotage.

It is unknown, which return route will be used for the transport, but countries along the three possible routes will be on alert for incursions into their territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones. The Japanese Foreign Ministry confirmed in late January that three potential routes are under consideration: 1) via Panama and the Caribbean; 2) between Australia and New Zealand and via the Africa's Cape of Good Hope; or 3) via South America's Cape Horn. Both the Panama Canal and Cape of Good Hope route via the South Pacific have been used for plutonium transports. All three routes have been used for the transport of high level waste.

Notes: (1) Plutonium Mixed Oxide (MOX) - "MOX" stands for Mixed Oxide fuel, made of both plutonium and uranium mixed together. Plutonium is created in nuclear reactors, it does not occur naturally. The uranium used is usually freshly mined uranium and not the uranium recovered by reprocessing. Reprocessed uranium still contains small amounts of radioactive waste and many nuclear power companies won't use it in their reactors. The plutonium and uranium are mixed together as a powder and then turned into a ceramic fuel pellet (2cm high by 1cm wide). About 300 pellets are loaded into 3 metre long metal fuel pins.