The first-ever shipment of high-level nuclear waste from plutonium reprocessing appears set to transit the Panama Canal later this month, despite protests from nuclear watchdogs and neighboring countries that safety concerns have not been addressed.

Greenpeace International and the Nuclear Control Institute, an anti-proliferation lobby group in Washington, this week called on the governments of France, Britain and Japan - the nations responsible for the shipments - to halt them until security and environmental questions are resolved.''The plutonium industry is risking the lives and livelihoods of the people of the Caribbean and is courting an environmental catastrophe,'' said Tom Clements, a Greenpeace spokesman.

Reaction from the U.S. State Department was swift.

''There are no overwhelming security concerns that would cause us to prevent the shipment because we have every reason to believe it will be carried out in a safe and secure manner,'' Reuters quoted a State Department spokesman as saying.

At issue is the extremely toxic liquid residue from reprocessing spent reactor fuel to extract usable plutonium. The highly radioactive waste liquid is then vitrified, or cast into glass logs to immobilize it, and packed into stainless steel casks for transport.

The United States has rejected plutonium reprocessing as a way of dealing with spent fuel, because plutonium can be used to make weapons, and the process creates even more waste than it absorbs.

Reprocessing creates nearly 160 times more radioactive material as existed before reprocessing, Greenpeace said. But Britain and France have decided on reprocessing as the best way to deal with spent fuel.

The vitrified waste has no commercial value, but under international convention it must be returned to its place of origin for final disposal.

The safety issue is important because ocean shipments of high-level radioactive waste and reprocessed plutonium are on the increase, especially between Europe and Japan.

''It's just the beginning of the return to Japan of thousands of these type of containers,'' he said. ''They will dramatically increase the number of waste shipments.''

There are also more than 440 commercial nuclear reactors operating worldwide, and the eventual disposal of waste from those plants - either through plutonium reprocessing or international waste storage pacts - is likely to involve a growing waterborne trade.

Of the 33 countries that operate commercial nuclear reactors, not one has devised a plan for the final disposal of spent fuel and other high-level radioactive waste.


High-level radioactive waste, some of the most hazardous materials known to man, will remain highly toxic for at least 10,000 years. But at least some of the isotopes in that material will remain hazardous for 250,000 years.

Spent fuel from 110 commercial reactors in the United States reached 32,000 metric tons at the end of 1995. By 2015, those plants will add 38,000 tons, government figures show.

Worldwide, commercial reactors generated 10,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste in 1997, with an additional 206,000 tons expected over the next 18 years.

But the use of the Panama Canal for nuclear waste shipments would transform the peaceful Caribbean into a nuclear transit zone, critics charge.

An accident or terrorist attack would shut the canal for an indefinite period of time, disrupting international shipping and damaging the world economy, said Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute.

''They're now trying to establish the canal as the shortest acceptable route,'' he said in a telephone interview. ''The Suez Canal would be shorter, but that's out of the question.''

If the Suez Canal is not acceptable because of possible terrorist attack, why use the Panama Canal? he asked.

''Why run that risk when alternative routes are available?'' he said. ''They are both confined waterways.''


Although the route and date of departure of the upcoming waste shipment has not been announced, Greenpeace said it has learned from a leaked French government document that it will leave France for Panama on Jan. 23 aboard the Pacific Swan, one of five specially built vessels owned by Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd. of Britain.

The company is a partnership among nuclear reprocessors British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., state-owned Cogema of France and 10 Japanese electric utilities.

The three possible routes are the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba, and the Anegada Passage through the Virgin Islands, Greenpeace said.

Under British Nuclear Fuel's security policy, the company will release the name of the ship, time and port of departure one or two days before the ship departs. The date of arrival at the Japanese Port of Mutsu-Ogawara will be announced two weeks before the ship arrives, the company said.

But that has not satisfied a group of 13 coastal nations led by Argentina, which asked the International Maritime Organization last year to develop a mandatory operations code for those shipments.

That code should include prior notification of shipments, mandatory consultations, detailed emergency response planning, a strict liability regime and guaranteed salvage, they argue.


The IMO, a U.N. agency concerned with maritime safety and the prevention of marine pollution from ships, is still considering those issues in various committees.

At least part of the problem is that vitrified waste from plutonium reprocessing is even more dangerous than spent uranium fuel because it is more concentrated, Nuclear Control's Mr. Leventhal said.

''Each canister weighs half a ton, but contains the same radioactivity as two tons of spent fuel,'' he said. ''It's also more vulnerable because it's in glass.''

The upcoming 30-ton shipment of 60 logs will be the third movement of vitrified waste back to Japan. The first, containing 28 logs, used the Cape Horn route in 1995. A second, containing 40 logs, sailed south of the Cape of Good Hope last year.

Shipments to Japan eventually will total more than 3,000 logs, Greenpeace said.

Still, Pacific Nuclear Transport's ships have made more than 150 voyages carrying spent fuel since the late 1960s, many of them through the Panama Canal, and all sailed without serious mishap, said Gavin Carter, a British Nuclear Fuels' spokesman in Washington.

''It's carried on the same ships, in the same type of containers, using the same regulations,'' he said. ''It's up to the canal to decide what they would do in response to various hazardous cargoes, but there has not been any problem with these vessels so far.''

The safety of those ships also has been substantiated by the Panama Canal Commission, which told the IMO in 1996 that the cargoes that present the greatest risk are gasoline, liquefied petroleum gas and ships carrying more than five tons of explosive.


At the canal, however, those movements are business as usual. Of the 13,631 vessels that passed through the waterway in 1995, about 30 percent carried IMO-designated ''dangerous cargoes,'' including 63 that were radioactive, commission reports show.

''Our shipments are by no means the most hazardous on the seas,'' Mr. Carter said. ''If all hazardous shipments were shipped like we ship ours, many would argue that the world would be a better place.''

Although the commission would not comment directly on precautions against terrorist attack, ships carrying nuclear cargoes use the highest-qualified pilots, and the channel is cleared in advance to preclude any chance of collision, said Freddy Chen, a commission spokesman in Panama.

''These ships are the most sturdy vessels there are,'' he said. ''They have to comply with the toughest standards, set by the IMO and the International Atomic Energy Agency.''

The commission also has detailed reaction and response contingency plans, developed by consultants Arthur D. Little, and in the event of an emergency beyond its capabilities, the United States would send an emergency response team, he said.

Still, the Pacific Swan has had its troubles. In 1990, an engine-room fire in the Caribbean threatened the ship's spent uranium fuel cargo and forced it to stop unexpectedly in Bermuda.

Although there was no release of radioactivity, a U.S. report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency at that time found that a one-hour fire could cause the waste storage casks to release their radioactive coolant water, and that a five-hour fire could cause the fuel rods to melt, making it possible for radioactivity to escape.

Critics also contend that the risk of accident and the difficulty of salvage was amply demonstrated in November, when the Panamanian-flag freighter Carla, carrying highly radioactive cesium chloride destined for U.S. hospitals, broke apart and its bow sank with part its cargo in the Atlantic, north of the Azores.

''The French government said the danger was negligible,'' Mr. Leventhal said. ''If an accident like that had occurred with a vitrified waste cargo, the radioactive release would have been catastrophic.''