Pathway away from destruction

Feature story - 19 September, 2002
One of the most dangerous and unnecessary shipments ever to have taken place reached journey’s end on September 17th 2002 when it docked in the UK port of Barrow. The effect that this shipment’s 18,000 mile, 75-day passage, through some of the world’s heaviest seas had on the governments and peoples of en-route nations, and those who want to protect the fragile marine environment through which it sailed, could be likened to the running of a knife through an open wound.

Surrounded by Japanese police and coast guards Greenpeace inflatables protest beneath kites from the Mv Arctic Sunrise

Similar transports of plutonium waste material have taken place before and have been protested and condemned by en-route governments, communities and non-governmental organisations. However, the global outpouring of protest ignited by this latest shipment surpasses previous levels by quite some way.

Eighty governments sent strong messages opposing the shipment including very strong statements and support for the protests against it from the Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Ireland, Helen Clark and Bertie Ahern. Three groups of seafarers, united by their love of the sea and indignation at how the sea and those that depend on it were being risked, formed protest flotillas at strategic points along the potential routes the shipment could take. Many thousands more 'landlubber' individuals, as concerned as the 'real' flotilla protestors but boatless, or without sea-legs, joined Greenpeace's virtual flotilla to protest the oceans becoming nuclear highways.

Also, three global events and some major industry scandals punctuated the plutonium transport's perilous passage around the world.

The first of these events was the Korea/Japan World Cup. We suspect that BNFL and the British and Japanese Governments timed the ships' arrival in Japan to coincide with the tournament, in the hope that media attention would be diverted. We leave you to judge whether this suspected strategy worked or not.

However, the second two events only helped to focus more attention on the shipments. The ships passed by South Africa only a week before the World Summit on Sustainable Development. This shone a spotlight on the absurdity of the ships, with their cargo of dirty and dangerous energy, passing the world's largest ever environmental conference, which was supposed to be agreeing timelines for 2 billion of the world's poor to receive clean, safe energy. The final event, less than a week ahead of the ships' arrival in Barrow, was the first anniversary of 9/11 - a time when everybody's thoughts turned to security amidst the threat from terrorist attacks.

In the meantime, the nuclear industry in both Japan and the UK has been reeling from serious financial and safety scandals. TEPCO, the Japanese utility due to load plutonium MOX fuel into its Fukushima and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors, admitted it had falsified safety data on its reactors for the past decade. Heads rolled, and the impact on public confidence in the industry resulted in the immediate announcement of a freeze in any plutonium MOX use.

In the UK, British Energy, the major nuclear utility alongside BNFL and a key customer for BNFL's Sellafield reprocessing plant, announced it had joined BNFL in effectively being bankrupt and asked the UK government for a bailout. City watchdogs are now investigating the financial probity of the company.

Both these developments can only severely undermine confidence in the nuclear industry's claims about the safety and need for plutonium programs.

So what was it about this shipment that focused global concern as never before? A combination of the following probably gets you your answer, but we welcome further suggestions;

- a groundswell of anger from those affected has been building up from past shipments;

- this was the first shipment of weapons-usable plutonium post 9/11, or;

- the fact that those responsible for the provision and perpetuation of nuclear power, of which the plutonium trade is an essential part, suffered an annus horribilis of cover-ups, bankruptcies and insolvencies, safety lapses and failures in plant security.

What possibly became clearer to a wider public than ever before, as the shipment progressed, was that The Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal were becoming potent symbols of the nuclear industry's failure as all of the above stories played out.

One of the results, we hope, will be that many more people will not only question the need for further dangerous shipments to take place, but that they will go further and question the need for nuclear power at all. In saying this, we fully recognise that nuclear power cannot just vanish overnight and has to be phased out gradually. There are huge stockpiles of plutonium in the UK, Japan and elsewhere which have to be stored safely and nuclear plants have to be decommissioned.

What we are certain about, and hope that many more are also aware of as a result of the global coverage the issue received, is that any further investment in the provision of nuclear power should be switched immediately to the provision of clean, safe energy. The only funds invested in the nuclear industry from now on should be spent on closing it down safely.