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Powell: Talk about arctic nuclear waste shipments appear limited

Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Any talk about shipping nuclear materials through the Arctic Ocean is just an idea at this point, Secretary of State Colin Powell says.

He told Gov. Tony Knowles in a letter that such an idea appears limited to private interests and is years from reality.

Knowles spokesman Bob King said Monday the governor was relieved to learn the idea was in the early conceptual stages, where hopefully it can be quashed. But the Knowles administration remains concerned, King said.

The governor wrote Powell and other officials in the United States and the Russian province of Chukotka last month after reports about discussions between Russian shippers and Japanese power companies appeared in newspapers.

Russian shippers had offered to use icebreakers to escort freighters carrying nuclear materials bound from Europe to Japan by way of a Northeast Passage along Russia's Arctic Coast, according to the news accounts.

Knowles echoed concerns voiced by North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak.

''Any accidental release of this material could have a devastating effect on the fragile Arctic environment and the health and welfare of the people who live there,'' Knowles said.

In his response, received by the governor's office last week, Powell said the talks so far appear to be limited.

''The Government of Japan has told us informally that, while it has heard of the preliminary discussions within the industry, it has never been consulted by the industry, and that any decision ... to adopt such a route would require concurrence by the Japanese government,'' Powell's letter said.

''We have no reason to believe that any decisions on adopting an Arctic route are imminent.''

Japan uses nuclear fuel to power some utilities and sends spent fuel to reactors in France and Britain for reprocessing. The new fuel and wastes from the reprocessing are returned to Japan.

The exchange has been going on for about a decade, with freighters using traditional routes around South Africa and South America, but resistance has been growing among nations near those shipping lanes.

In his letter, Powell said the State Department would monitor progress of the talks.

''If it happens at all, any use of the Northeast Passage route for shipments of radioactive nuclear waste is clearly years away, given the preliminary nature of the industry discussions,'' Powell said. ''If this does become a matter of consultation between governments, we will be in contact to make sure the Department is able to represent the concerns you expressed effectively.

''In any case, we would expect, and seek to ensure, that sea shipments of radioactive materials over any route would comply with relevant international rules and standards, and that they would be carried out safely and without significant risk to the environment.''



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