BNFL sets nuclear timebomb ticking on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster

Press release - 26 May, 2002

London - Two armed British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) freighters left Barrow-in-Furness in northern England this morning, setting the clock ticking on the most controversial nuclear shipment in history.

The vessels are bound for Japan to undertake a proposed transport containing plutonium, sufficient to build 50 nuclear bombs, from Japan to Sellafield. The return of the material, a mixture of plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX), to the UK would be in defiance of both international and UK law.

"The UK and Japan have started the countdown to the most controversial nuclear shipment in history on the anniversay of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (1)," Greenpeace International Nuclear Campaigner Shaun Burnie said. "They could not have chosen a more fitting date to remind the international community of the arrogance and dangerous risk-taking of the nuclear industry”.

Greenpeace has written to the UK government and to BNFL this week to outline its case that the transport from Japan would be unlawful and in breach of international agreements (2).

The return shipment would also violate an undertaking given by the UK government to the International Law of the Sea Tribunal in November 2001. Following a challenge against the newly approved Sellafield MOX Plant by the Irish Government to the Tribunal, the UK told the Tribunal that no imports of MOX fuel associated with the operations of the Sellafield MOX Plant would go ahead before October 2002.

The two vessels, the Pacific Pintail and the Pacific Teal, one acting as an armed escort, the other carrying the plutonium, would face a barrage of international opposition if they make their global journey, the environmental organisation predicted. Demonstrations are planned in Ireland today (3). The ships plan to pick up the plutonium MOX material, at Takahama in Japan in June, and return it to the UK in early August.

The material is being returned to the UK solely because after being shipped as fuel to Japan in 1999 it was revealed that the manufacturer, BNFL, had falsified critical quality control data during its production.

"The industry is creating a floating terrorist target and a dangerous hazard simply in order for BNFL to be able to get new contracts with its Japanese customers. This would result in yet more shipments of plutonium fuel, perhaps as many as 80 over the next decade," Mr Burnie said.

The nuclear industry is keeping secret the route of the proposed June shipment, but it if it goes ahead it is likely to take one of three possible routes from Japan to the UK:

via the Pacific, Panama Canal, Caribbean, Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea

via the Pacific, Cape Horn, Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea

via the Pacific, Tasman Sea, Cape of Good Hope, Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea.

"BNFL lied to the world about the falsification of safety data; countries along the routes have every right to be concerned that a company with such a dangerous and discreditable history should be in charge of the safety of this shipment," Burnie said.

Caribbean countries have already this year voiced their "implacable opposition" to nuclear shipments through their region and Latin American countries have also voiced protest. During a shipment of MOX to Japan through the Tasman Sea last year, a flotilla of small yachts sailed from Australia and New Zealand to oppose the PNTL vessels. The flotilla protest was supported by the New Zealand government.

There are also serious concerns about the safety of the shipment, which should also have prevented the PNTL vessel leaving. The cask in which the plutonium is to be transported has not yet been licensed by the Japanese authorities. An earlier licence was revoked when it was discovered that levels of the single largest source of radioactivity in the cask, the radioisotope Plutonium-241, will be up to twice as high as originally estimated.

"This shipment must be abandoned before it is too late. When this BNFL MOX fuel arrived in Japan in 1999, Japan was experiencing its worst ever nuclear accident at Tokai-mura. On the present schedule, the plutonium shipment will take place right in the middle of the FIFA World Cup in Japan, in spite of the enormous diversion of security resources this will take. The nuclear industry in the UK and Japan clearly has not learned from its mistakes, and are showing total disregard for public safety, the environment and international security," Burnie concluded.

Notes: 1. Today is the 16th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident, the worst disaster in the history of the nuclear industry. More than 100 emergency workers on the site of the accident on 26 April 1986 suffered radiation sickness and 41 of them died. There has been a dramatic increase in childhood thyroid cancer, normally a very rare disease. 2. Under international law the shipment cannot go ahead unless authorised by the US. The US has given approval on the basis that the plutonium is to be recovered and returned to Japan in the form of fresh MOX fuel assemblies. Yet the UK Government has told Parliament that the faulty MOX is to be imported and stored at Sellafield while BNFL decides what to do with it. And the UK has promised the Irish Government and the International Law of the Sea (ITLOS), that there will be no transports associated with the operation of the Sellafield MOX plant before October 2002. The import must be in breach either of the US authorisation or the undertakings given to ITLOS. Greenpeace has asked for a response from the UK Government by April 30th. A copy of the letter is available from Greenpeace. 3. There will be protests against the proposed shipment in Ireland at the UK and Japanese embassies in Dublin at 4.30pm organised by Greenpeace, the Gluaisteach student movement and VOICE and many other anti-nuclear groups.