Unique plutonium shipment threat to the Caribbean

Press release - 8 May, 2002

The Caribbean is threatened with a unique plutonium shipment Greenpeace stated today, as two empty nuclear freighters are expected to enter the Caribbean Sea during the next few days. The ships, Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal left Barrow-in-Furness, England on April 26th and are due to enter the Caribbean around May 8th-9th. They are en-route to Japan where they are to pick up a cargo of plutonium Mixed Oxide (MOX) material, after which the material is to be shipped back to the British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) site at Sellafield in England. Greenpeace declared that Caribbean nations have only a matter of weeks to restate their opposition to the return shipment of plutonium which could occur as early as mid-June.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry stated in January that three sea routes are available for the return plutonium shipment to the UK.(1) This includes the Panama Canal and Caribbean Sea. Since when however the Caribbean states through the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) have expressed their implacable opposition to the shipment of nuclear waste through their region calling on Japan to find alternatives.(2)

"The Japanese Government and British Nuclear Fuels declare that no decision has yet been made on the route to be taken by this most controversial of nuclear shipments. If true that means the Caribbean is still at threat from this shipment. Only a few weeks ago one of BNFL´s ships caught fire. An accident with this cargo of plutonium could be catastrophic for the Caribbean. It is an unacceptable threat that must be stopped," said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International.

The plutonium MOX is being returned to the UK because the Japanese Government and owners of the MOX rejected it following disclosures in 1999 that BNFL had deliberately lied over the safety checks conducted during its manufacture. BNFL and the UK Government agreed to pay Japan compensation and the cost of the transport amounting to 110 million pounds sterling.

Greenpeace is opposed to the return as it presents an unacceptable environmental and security threat to all nations on the transport route. The plutonium MOX could be stored in Japan, and although not without risk, especially from a security and proliferation prespective, it is not as dangerous as shipping it tens of thousands of kilometers around the world. Since 1984 Japan has received over 2500 kilograms of plutonium, justified as necessary for Japan´s energy needs. Yet not one gram of the plutonium has been used to generate electricity. In 1984 a sea shipment of plutonium with enormous levels of security used the Caribbean Sea route to Japan, including British, French and US naval warships acting as escort. The Pacific Pintail and Teal are lightly armed nuclear freighters with armed terrorist police on board.

Only last week the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark expressed strong opposition to this shipment during meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. She also committed the Government to supporting Greenpeace in its efforts against the transport (3). The Irish Government is still considering legal action against the UK Government to prevent the shipment. Ireland cites a commitment made by the UK Government to the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea during a legal case brought by Ireland during 2001. The UK stated that no shipment associated with a new plutonium MOX plant at Sellafield would be made until October 2002.

Jamaica, with the backing of other Caribbean nations recently led moves at the United Nations in New York to oppose the transport of plutonium and nuclear waste. During negotiations at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Prepcom, Jamaica together with Chile, New Zealand, Ireland and Norway expressed their concerns over the continuing threat posed by nuclear sea shipments (4).

"The Caribbean nations have been a consistent and strong critic of these shipments. Increasingly they are being joined by countries around the world. Since 1984 the nuclear industry has not used this route for plutonium. However, for this shipment anything is possible. Governments, politicians, and the wider community need to act now to prevent this shipment from threatening the Caribbean. They can be stopped but only through decisive and strong opposition," said Tom Clements of Greenpeace International in Panama.

Describing the shipment as unlawful, on April 29th Greenpeace announced that it was sending its largest vessel, the MV Esperanza, to Japan to support the opposition to Japan´s plutonium program and this shipment. The environmental organization is considering legal options to prevent the shipment.