Take a look at this photograph taken this week…

police on pacific pintail

Picture copyright CORE.

Those gentlemen are armed policemen on the ship, the Pacific Pintail.

The Pintail is owned by British Nuclear Fuels and in the next few days – along with her sister ship the Pacific Heron – will transport 65 elements of plutonium Mixed-Oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel from Cherbourg in France to Japan.

The Pintail and Heron don’t just have armed guards – those policemen are standing next to the Pintail’s starboard naval gun. Transporting MOX is an extremely dangerous business for all kinds of reasons. It’s unsafe, insecure and unnecessary.

This is the first MOX transport to Japan for eight years. This will be the largest shipment of plutonium in history - the MOX fuel elements contain a total of 1,800 kg plutonium. That’s enough to make 225 nuclear weapons.

The cycle of MOX processing is a long and complicated one. This particular shipment began life as spent fuel in Japan which was shipped to the La Hague reprocessing plant in Normandy, France. After reprocessing the plutonium was transported 1,000 kilometres by truck through France to the MOX fuel fabrication plant MELOX in Marcoule. The MOX fuel elements were then transported by truck back to La Hague where they will be loaded into larger containers. More trucks then will take them to the harbour in Cherbourg where the Pintail and Heron will be waiting.

MOX actually increases the chances of nuclear proliferation. Plutonium in spent nuclear fuel is harder to extract for use in nuclear weapons than plutonium in MOX fuel. None of the 39 MOX reactors worldwide reactors effectively burn up plutonium. No wonder MOX and its waste travel under such huge security. On top of that, there is no evidence that the structural strength of the containers used for MOX transport is enough to withstand possible accidents.

Also, MOX is more even complicated and unstable that other nuclear fuels meaning it give lower performance and presents greater risks. In 1999 the poor quality of the MOX shipped to Japan from France meant it could not be used. Half is still being stored as waste in Japan and the other half was returned to Sellafield in the UK, its whereabouts currently unknown.

So there will be quite a few nervous people when the Pintail and the Heron set sail next week. Will those guns be needed? We’ll be watching…

(More information on MOX and this shipment is available here)

UPDATE: The Pintail and the Heron left their dock at Barrow-in-Furness in north west England at 12.30pm today (Friday) and are now on their way to Cherbourg.