"The vessel is a visible target for
any group that wants to make a
statement," Jorge Quijano, director
of maritime operations for the Panama Canal Authority, said in an interview today.
Environmental groups fear that
the ship, the Pacific Swan, carrying
high-level waste to Japan from
France, is vulnerable to terrorists
who could board and dislodge or rupture the casks with the waste, threatening a potentially catastrophic release of radioactivity.
Two years ago, when the first shipment of radioactive waste passed
through the canal, Greenpeace, the
antinuclear group, boarded the vessel to show how easy a terrorist
hijacking would be.
Since then another shipment has
transited the canal without incident.
But now that the United States has
given Panama control of the canal,
Panamanian authorities have decided to provide what they described
as "greatly enhanced protection" for
the new shipment.
Panamanian security forces will
board the Pacific Swan as it enters
Panamanian waters and take control
of security and escort vessels. If necessary, Panama will also provide
security from the air, Mr. Quijano
"This is definitely the most secure
vessel to pass through the canal
since Jan. 1," he said, referring to
when Panama took over the canal.
Most of the pressure to increase
security came from the Nuclear Control Institute, a group in Washington
that seeks to limit the spread of
nuclear weapons. The group has
been monitoring the shipments,
which are tied to nuclear power
plants in Japan.
The waste is the spent fuel from
nuclear power plants in Japan from
which the plutonium and uranium
has been recovered in France. British ships will make two trips a year
through the canal to return the waste
to Japan for 15 years, the president
of the Washington group, Paul Leventhal, said.
"The consequence of a release of
radioactive waste would be long
lived," Mr. Leventhal said in an interview. "The contamination would
be very hard to clean up, and it could
render the canal inoperable and the
surrounding areas uninhabitable."
Mr. Leventhal was in Panama at
the government's invitation to monitor the Pacific Swan's passage. He
said he attended a security session
this morning with representatives of
the canal authority; British Nuclear
Fuels Ltd., whose subsidiary owns
the ship; and the Japanese nuclear
Any problem with the ship would
be a blow to the industry, which has
come under rare public criticism
since Japan suffered its worst accident in September. One worker was
killed and scores of people were exposed to radiation when workers set
off an accidental chain reaction at a
plant in Tokaimura.
The industry is counting on
France's continuing to reprocess the
fuel until it builds its own reprocessing factory. But the new criticism of
the industry may threaten those
Although Panama has no new intelligence that predicts a terrorist
attack, American officials have said
they have worried through much of
this decade that a possible narcotics-terrorist plot from Colombia would
try to seize the canal.