Plutonium ship chaos

Feature story - 8 July, 2002
Shortly after a flotilla of small boats set out to protest a shipment of weapons-usable plutonium through the Tasman sea, a possible security escort, the HMS Nottingham, ran aground off the east coast of Australia.

HMS Nottingham, one of the British Navy's most advanced destroyers ran aground off the east coast of Australia.

The destroyer HMS Nottingham, one of the most advanced ships of the British navy, was rumoured to be in the Tasman as a security escort for the plutonium ship. The grounding during a week of bad weather that has devastated the Federated States of Micronesia only highlights how irresponsible and dangerous this whole transport is.

British Nuclear Fuels' plutonium shipment will be passing through these rough winter waters in the Tasman Sea within two weeks on route from Japan to England. The risk of catastrophic accident such as fire or collision involving the ship Pacific Pintail and the release of its cargo of plutonium into the environment is all the greater given the failure of British or Japanese governments to conduct a thorough environmental impact assessment as required by international law.

In the past week it has also been revealed that the Pacific Pintail and escort ship Teal are suffering from corrosion that threatens their structural safety. British Nuclear Fuels refused to release details concerning the state of the ships. The Japanese government only learnt about this problem after news reports.

Is it really safe for these corroding ships to pass through waters that have grounded one of the British navy's most advanced destroyers?

Parts of the route planned for the plutonium shipments are officially classified as Marine High Risk Areas by Lloyds of London.

Greenpeace nuclear campaigner Stephen Campbell seriously wonders if those who are making the decision to send these ships through this region in the middle of winter know what they are doing.

"The shipment is dangerous enough on its own let alone adding risk by sending it through the southern seas in winter," said Campbell.

Questions have also been raised regarding why the HMS Nottingham is in this region in the first place. UK Channel 4 News has speculated that it is there to protect the plutonium shipments from terrorist attack, although the ministry of defence has denied the rumour.

"There have been rumours running for the last few months that the shipment of reject plutonium, carrying 255 kilograms of weapons-usable material would have an additional escort that would not be part of the public plan," said Campbell. "Clearly those making the shipment recognise what a security risk it is".

The HMS Nottingham ran aground off Lord Howe 300 miles north east of Sydney, near where the Pacific Flotilla will converge. There have been no casualties, but the ship is now leaking oil and taking on water. Only last week an oil tanker also grounded off the coast of Fiji and the rough winter weather of the southern seas is far from over.

But a group of citizens are braving the rough waters in the Tasman to protest the plutonium shipment. You can read more about the Nuclear Free Seas flotilla in this month's feature.