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Nuclear fuels go on tour
from SchNEWS Issue 221, Friday 23th July 1999

"We are in danger of sparking a whole new arms race around the Pacific rim." - Greenpeace International

Cumbria rural England, home to the Lakes, Fells oh, and British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL). Sellafield, the sprawling nuclear metropolis, with its sordid history of radioactive pollution, on-site fires, and other such niceties, has this week begun a major operation to ship reprocessed nuclear fuel across International waters to Japan.

The nuclear cargo is MOx fuel, mixed oxide rods containing both uranium and plutonium. The rods are heated within the reactor, which produces an ashy film on the outside. This ash is weapons-grade Plutonium. You wouldn't have to be a nuclear physicist to remove it. Pacific Nuclear Transport (PNT) is the company that owns both Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal, the ships which will be carrying the nuclear cargo. Japan cannot reprocess fuel itself, and therefore, needs European plants to do the dirty work for them, namely Sellafield in Britain and La Hague in France. PNT is owned by BNFL, which is in turn owned by the Governmenthow cosy ?


The undisclosed route is expected to take two months, even though most countries don't want the ships to pass through their waters. Fourteen Caribbean heads of government are furious that they were not consulted about the route. The fisher folk in South Korea have vowed to blockade the ships en-mass with their boats, fearing the cargo will threaten their safety and livelihoods.

There will be over 400kg of plutonium on board the ships, enough to manufacture 60 nuclear bombs.This is quite worrying for the international community, as Japan has had tight reins on its arsenal of weapons since WW2. As Kevin Dunion, Friends of the Earth, points out, " As its neighbours watch, Japan is slowly increasing its stockpile of weapons- useable nuclear materials with the blessing of British Nuclear Fuels and our Government."


In a vain PR attempt, BNFL would like to sever the link between the nuclear industry and the military in the minds of both the public and foreign Governments. Activists clambered onto a crane in the civilian dock at Cherbourg, where the Pacific Teal was to collect it's deadly cargo from the COGEMA plant at Cape de La Hague, Northern France. The goal of the action was to push the ship into the military dock next door, to highlight the link.

This is the first time a shipment of this kind will NOT receive a Naval escort. Instead the Pintail and The Teal have both undergone a multi-million pound refit to arm them against military and terrorist threat (oh, and it seems good old-fashioned piracy hasn't been ruled out, either!) Greenpeace state that "If a government or paramilitary force seizes the cargo it could have a nuclear weapon within three weeks."

The 30mm canons and other defence weapons on board have made the Pintail and Teal the first armed merchant ships in 50 years. Despite BNFL's claims that the ships are not at risk, the civilian crews sailing them will receive danger money!! The National Union of Marine Aviation and Shipping Officers (NUMAST) asked for a pay increase for the staff and war-zone payments if the ship sailed into difficulties!!


The Government have decided to sell off 49% of British Nuclear Fuels to the private sector, making themselves a nice little earner to the tune of 1.5 BILLION! But there's a catch. This will only happen if Sellafield can generate lucrative profits from the successful production and shipping of the controversial MOx fuel. If this week's shipment goes smoothly, there will be another 80 to follow over the next decade.

The last thing BNFL need is bad publicity as it hardly encourages the investors they so desperately need. Greenpeace, old acquaintances of the nuclear industry, set out to pull the rug from under BNFL's feet. Dragging an inflatable white elephant in front of the Pacific Teal to expose the farce of this whole venture, the shipment was delayed for 12 hrs. Not taking too kindly to this 'scary' ordeal, BNFL immediately hauled Greenpeace into court, where they accused the organisation of breaching a High Court injunction obtained 3 days before the consignment even left Sellafield. In an obvious attempt to prevent any embarrassing protests, the company tried to ensure Greenpeace kept their distance.

"As a company, BNFL has no problem with a peaceful and lawful protest. However we would not want to see the safety of the ships' crew, the escort team or the public at large put in danger by some irresponsible media stunt," Alastair Thomas, BNFL's head of transport, said in a statement. So plutonium doesn't put anyone's safety in danger, does it Alastair?!!


The outcome in court was that Greenpeace International has had its bank accounts frozen at BNFL's request. The company is claiming £90,275 damages for extra wages they claim they had to pay because of the delay. Also, John Prescott, the deputy prime minister ordered Greenpeace to remove its ships from British waters.

This is the first time such an order has been made under the 1995 merchant shipping act. "Greenpeace will not be strangled in its peaceful efforts to expose the dangerous and dirty nature of the plutonium industry by this financial terrorism. It is an obscene miscarriage of justice that Greenpeace is under attack rather than the French, British and Japanese Gov's, who are conducting a trade in weapons-useable plutonium."

The Governments' little baby, BNFL are themselves in a state of disarray, breaking their own environmental guidelines and promises. They were in such a rush to escape from Barrow, they even forgot to weld down the hatches

"If this cargo is allowed to leave, the governments ethical foreign policy will be in tatters. It is not ethical to annually pump millions of litres of radioactive waste into the sea. It is not ethical to impose this dangerous transport on the en route states, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. It is not ethical to be a world leader in the sale of weapons-useable radioactive material." Jenny MacKay, Greenpeace.


A captain in the Russian navy walked free this week after spending 14 months inside for handing footage of sailors dumping radioactive waste into the sea, to a Japanese TV network. Espionage charges against him were dropped, and he was freed under an amnesty. The Russian authorities tried to hush it all up, but the failed, and he became a local hero, gaining support from monks and women who gave him pizza.

" A report written in 1994 states that a coolant failure at Sellafield, lasting for as little as half a day could result in an explosion that would force the evacuation of two million people from Britain and cripple the Irish economy for several decades." - The Ecologist

For excellent, up to the minute account of the ships, check-out Or call Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) on 01229 833 851.

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