July 1999

South Africa Tells Nuke Ships to Stay Away

Environment News Service (ENS), Cape Town, South Africa, July 27, 1999

[Posted 28/07/1999]

The government of South Africa has requested that two ships carrying [MOX] nuclear fuel from Europe to Japan stay out of South African waters. Deputy Minister of Environment Joyce Mabudafhasi said, "The overriding interest of the South African government is in minimising any risk to human health, marine life and the environment by ensuring the safe passage of the ships to Japan."

The two British-flagged nuclear transport freighters left France and Britain July 21, met at sea, and are escorting one another to Japan. Their route around Africa's Cape of Good Hope and through the Western Pacific Ocean was announced July 22, the day after departure. Only then was the government of South Africa briefed.

Their cargo is the first shipment of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel processed at British Nuclear Fuels"(BNFL) Sellafield nuclear plant and France's Cogema facility. It is destined for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and the Takahama nuclear power plant operated by the Kansai Electric Power Company (Kansai).

The estimated 446 kilograms (981 pounds) of fuel are contained in 40 mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel elements. One pellet of MOX fuel has the energy equivalence of one tonne of coal.

Mabudafhasi was assured by British, French and Japanese diplomats last week that the ships will not dock at any South African harbour.

"South African law requires that ships carrying nuclear material must have a licence to do so," the deputy minister said. "Furthermore no application for a licence has been received by the South African regulatory authority, the Council for Nuclear Safety. Further assurances were received that the radiological protection and safety arrangements meet international standards."

Mabudafhasi said that South Africa accepts the international law that grants any state the right of freedom of navigation if its ships on the high seas or through states Exclusive Economic Zone and the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea of coastal states. "Notwithstanding," she said, "I have requested that the ships stay out of our territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone."

Greenpeace announced 23 July in London that it would be sending activists to South Africa, the South Pacific, South Korea and Japan to work with local citizens"groups - which have already protested against the shipment - to organise further opposition.

Greenpeace vessels attempted to protest the departure of the Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd. (PNTL) transport ships as they left Cherbourg, France and the northern England port of Barrow, but their vessels were banned from both French and British waters. Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd. is a subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd.

Late last week Greenpeace International was informed by its bank in Amsterdam that its bank account had been seized at the request of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd.

BNFL froze Greenpeace International's bank account after alleging that Greenpeace activities, during the departure of the Pacific Pintail carrying plutonium fuel from the port of Barrow to Japan, had delayed its departure.

Greenpeace said it would be issuing summary proceedings against BNFL in the Dutch courts, following BNFL's failure to meet a Greenpeace request, made yesterday, to lift the freeze on its bank account by this morning. It urged BNFL to drop all legal proceedings against Greenpeace and said BNFL's claim of 90,000 damages was baseless.

British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. says the MOX fuel is being transported to Japan in specially designed casks which "satisfy the rigorous international safety standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). They are designed to protect the public and environment in all credible accident scenarios."

The casks are carried on ships designed specifically for transporting radioactive materials. BNFL says, "These ships meet the highest safety rating of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which means they are amongst the safest ships on the seas."

They have double hulls to withstand collision damage, enhanced buoyancy to maintain the ship afloat even in extreme circumstances, dual navigation and tracking systems and special fire fighting equipment, including a hold flooding system.

Japan will use the MOX fuel to generate electricity. Nuclear power proponents reason that the use of MOX fuel will enable Japan to recycle its uranium and plutonium resources, conserving uranium reserves and reducing dependence on imported fuels.

Recycling the plutonium reduces the amount of high level radioactive waste that must be disposed of. Recycling the plutonium helps Japan to implement its policy of not stockpiling excess separated plutonium, thereby promoting non-proliferation objectives.

Regarding the safety of the shipments from terrorist attack, UK Energy Minister John Battle told Parliament in January, "Each [ship] would carry armaments, for defensive use only, under the control of specially trained officers of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary. These security provisions are solely for protecting the ships, their crew and their cargo in the extremely unlikely eventuality of an armed assault by terrorists."

The Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal are scheduled to deliver their cargo to nuclear power plants at Takahama and Fukushima in September.

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