Plutonium on the horizon, planet on the line

Feature story - 19 August, 2002
A shipment of one of the planet's deadliest substances will round the Cape of Good Hope at about the same time world leaders are arriving in Johannesburg for the Earth Summit on Sustainable Development. We caught up with the British ship carrying the weapons-grade plutonium off the coast of Africa, but will we be able to get close enough to world leaders to remind them how unsustainable nuclear energy is.

Greenpeace activists Penny Gardner (UK) right and Irene Maggiulli (Italy) left on the bow mast of the MV Esperanza protesting the passage of a deadly plutonium shipment from Japan to UK.

Some of the most dangerous, expensive and dirty material ever to be produced as fuel is now sailing past South Africa, trying desperately to avoid the public eye, just one week before the World Summit on Sustainable Development meets in Johannesburg.

Top of the summit agenda for many countries and citizens' groups is the need to supply clean, modern, affordable energy to the two billion people in the world who currently lack access to electricity. Greenpeace is calling for 10 percent of the global energy supply by 2010 to be provided by renewable energy to protect the climate from dangerous levels of climate change, and to prevent further radioactive harm to people and the environment.

The reject plutonium fuel now off the coast of South Africa is the epitome of everything wrong about the current energy paradigm, and the exact opposite of clean, modern affordable energy. Those responsible for this shipment, British Nuclear Fuels, the Japanese nuclear industry and the British and Japanese governments must be aware of this. This is why the shipment has been trying to run from the public eye - without success though. The Greenpeace ship, MV Esperanza, has been out on the high seas tracking the secret shipment and has just borne witness to its passage, placing it's shameful existence under a spotlight for all the world to see.

"The nuclear industry may try to run, but they cannot hide the fact that they are endangering the environment, lives and livelihoods of millions of people by shipping their deadly and discredited cargo around the world," said Tom Clements of Greenpeace on board the MV Esperanza. "This shipment alone is costing £100 million - money which would be better spent on clean, renewable energy. When world leaders gather in Johannesburg in a few days time they must reject all dirty energy - nuclear, oil, coal and gas - and commit to power that does not add to the appalling environmental legacy that nuclear and fossil fuels have left us,"

The reject plutonium fuel now floating past South Africa is being returned to Britain only because British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) deliberately falsified critical safety data during its production. This was revealed after it was shipped from the UK to Japanese customers in 1999.

The ships' payload is also a bomb-usable material - just 5kg of the 225 kg aboard the BNFL vessel Pacific Pintail could form the warhead of a nuclear weapon. The shipment is vulnerable to attack or accident, either of which could release radioactive pollutants to the ocean and air, risking the public health, environment and the tourism and fisheries-based economies of dozens of coastal states on its route. It is no wonder that the leaders of the 78 members of the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific Summit meeting last month called for an immediate cessation of such shipments.

The discovery of the shipment at this time, just ahead of the Johannesburg meeting, also shines the light on some despicable double standards. Prime Minister Tony Blair of the UK, for example, has called for "switching the lights on in Africa using technologies like wind and solar power" (Guardian 6 August 2002). However, the UK is at the same time shipping a transport of reject plutonium fuel around the globe. And with other EU nations, the UK also continues to promote nuclear power as a solution to the world's energy needs - this despite the evidence of a recent study, published on demand from the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, which concluded that wind energy is actually cheaper than nuclear power.

The reason is simple: the UK government has buckled to pressure from the nuclear industry, and in particular to the wishes of its state-owned company, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL).

The economic case for nuclear power is dreadful. Efforts to export nuclear power to developing economies have largely failed - for example, Brazil's Angra II nuclear reactor took 24 years to be completed and cost US$ 10 billion, and the cancelled Bataan reactor in the Philippines accounted for 20% of that country's foreign debt.

The UK and EU are perpetuating yet another double standard at Johannesburg by offering to provide "modern, safe nuclear" technology to developing countries where this is consistent with" national sustainability strategies". At the same time, the EU has already rejected a proposal to include nuclear power in its own sustainable development programme.

Greenpeace believes it is obscene for Europe to push its deadly mistakes -- both nuclear and coal technologies - on developing countries when the technology exists for clean, sustainable energy now. The huge amount of human and financial resources being spent on nuclear power could provide a huge boost if it were diverted to renewable energy development.

Act: Ask President Mbeki of South Africa to oppose the plutonium shipment, joining his voice to 78 other nations in the Pacific, Caribbean and Latin American regions. Then join our virtual flotilla to protest the shipments.