Deadly cargo

Jean-Michel Cousteau

November 10, 1992|By Jean-Michel Cousteau

JAPAN, totally dependent on imported oil, continues to mov forward with its plan for energy independence -- a program that is prompting worry because it calls for development of an energy industry based on plutonium, one of the most toxic substances on earth.

The environmental group Greenpeace is tracking a Japanese ship carrying plutonium recycled in France and headed for Japan. In a major international incident, Greenpeace accused a Japanese coast guard ship of ramming one of its protest ships Sunday. The Japanese said Greenpeace was at fault. Whichever is right, the jostling or ramming of a ship bearing such a fragile cargo is a frightening prospect.

Spent fuel from nuclear reactors contains plutonium that can be separated, reprocessed and then used as a new "starter" fuel for so-called "breeder" reactors. But plutonium is also the trigger fuel for nuclear bombs. A crude nuclear bomb can be made with roughly 20 pounds of reactor-grade plutonium.

The substance is, in itself, highly lethal. Micrograms can cause cancer in laboratory animals; a pound of it could eventually kill thousands and thousands of people. The Japanese ship, the Akatsuki Maru, is carrying 1.7 tons, the largest cargo ever of plutonium.

The United States provides a controlled amount of uranium to Japan for use in its conventional nuclear plants. The spent fuel is then sent to Europe for storage. But successive Japanese governments have been seeking permission to re-import plutonium reprocessed in Europe from this spent fuel for use in an experimental breeder nuclear-plant program.

As part of a post-World War II agreement controlling Japan's access to nuclear materials, the U.S., as the source of the original fuel, must give permission for any transfer of nuclear material from or to Japan. Under a process begun by the Reagan administration, which my father and I protested at the time, the U.S. did approve shipments by sea of reprocessed plutonium back to Japan.

France and Japan have signed a contract for the eventual shipment to Japan of 30 tons of plutonium by the year 2005. As part of this contract, the Akatsuki Maru left Yokohama for France in late August to collect approximately one ton of plutonium. The ship left Cherbourg over the weekend.

Although Japan claims the ship is safe and that military escorts will prevent any hijacking, in a post-Chernobyl world nations are understandably worried about this toxic freight.

One after the other, nations in harm's way should there be an accident at sea have relinquished permission for the ship to pass through their waters.

Australia refused to let the ship within its 200 mile zone; the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, where we conducted a recent expedition, also issued a strong protest. President Bernard Dowiyogo said, "The proposed shipment represents another example of the imposition of a nuclear risk on Pacific peoples without our counsel or consent."

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore also refused to welcome the ship, thereby eliminating an obvious shorter route through the Straits of Malacca.

It now appears that Chile and Argentina will refuse passage through the Magellan Straits. South Africa, too, has refused to allow the ship to round the Cape of Good Hope.

Caribbean nations want no part of the shipment and the United States, the source of the fuel in the first place, has also refused permission for use of the Panama Canal, which it still controls.

Thus, one remaining option from Europe to Japan would be south of Cape Horn through sub-Antarctic and Antarctic waters, a highly treacherous route. Another would be to sail well south of Africa and Australia and circuitously through the Pacific and back again to Japan.

Either way, the ship will be weeks at sea, subject to storms and possible terrorism, all the while followed by Greenpeace's protest ships, though the United States has said it will help protect the ship by using satellite surveillance.

Wouldn't it be wiser to develop a rational global energy plan than to allow any nation to rely on such a complicated and potentially deadly series of shipments? Becoming dependent on a toxic substance is no way to achieve energy independence.

Jean-Michel Cousteau writes a syndicated column called "Earth Matters."

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