Deadly shipment fails to sneak past protesters delivering anti-nuclear message

Ships try to outmanoeuvre then run from small protest flotilla

Feature story - July 22, 2002
The plutonium transport ships are large, fast and bristling with guns and security personnel. But they balked at the prospect of passing a tiny flotilla of sailboats armed only with cameras, because it posed one unbearable risk: exposing a deadly and foolhardy mission to the full glare of public scrutiny.

Protesters Ian Cohen and Stuart Lennox hold a banner near the plutonium ship Pacific Teal.

Their fears may have been justified, for today the Nuclear Free Seas Flotilla intercepted the plutonium transport and sent a powerful anti-nuclear message around the world.

"We may only be 10 boats but we carry the wishes and demands of millions of people, who want an end to the monstrous nuclear industry worldwide," said flotilla protester Henk Haazen.

For almost a week the small yachts of the Nuclear Free Seas Flotilla sailed across the Pacific to demonstrate the huge public opposition to the dangerous nuclear shipment. On Sunday, July 21 the flotilla of ten boats moved into position in the Tasman Sea, halfway between Australia and New Zealand.

The two nuclear freighters, carrying a load of highly dangerous nuclear MOX (mixed oxides of plutonium and uranium) from Japan to the UK, seemed reluctant to face the full glare of publicity. They drastically reduced their speed for the first time since leaving Japan, temporarily halting their passage through the Tasman Sea -- an apparent attempt to avoid the Nuclear Free Seas Flotilla.

Greenpeace and the flotilla expected the two armed UK nuclear freighters to try to sneak through the flotilla protest line during the dead of night. And that's exactly what happened.

When darkness fell the nuclear freighters sped up and at midnight, local time, they attempted to pass through the flotilla's protest line between Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands.

But the nuclear transport vessels were detected as they passed between the protest vessels SV Tiama and Fio-oko. The protesters launched an inflatable to shadow the ship, and at dawn they caught up with the nuclear transports. Two swimmers, Australian parliamentarian Ian Cohen and Stuart Lennox of Tasmania, were dropped into the water. They held up a banner that read "Nuclear Free Pacific" as the two nuclear ships steamed past.

"I wanted to make sure that there was no doubt in these shippers minds that they are not welcome in this region," said Cohen, who says he came there to represent Australians who express a strong anti-nuclear sentiment.

The flotilla boats also radioed their message of protest to the ships.

Opposition is reaching a crescendo in nations along the shipment's route. On July 17, the government of Vanuatu roundly condemned the shipment, and the next day the Fijian prime minister used a regional summit to express his outrage and opposition "to those who are so willing to put the Pacific and our peoples at risk." Then the 78 nations at the African-Caribbean-Pacific summit condemned and isolated Japan and the UK for their shameful nuclear waste MOX shipment in the summit's final declaration.

The shipment of MOX is being returned to the UK because its producers, the government-owned British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), falsified critical safety data on the MOX and the Japanese refused to use it.