Nuke Waste Ship Could Find Greenpeace in Its Wake

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, January 9, 2001 (ENS) - The environmental group Greenpeace is dispatching a ship from the Argentinian port of Ushuaia to track down a nuclear waste shipment sailing from France to Japan.

The group says the 192 blocks of high level waste on board the British-flagged freighter Pacific Swan contains an estimated 96 million curies of radioactivity. This, it claims, makes the vessel the largest high level nuclear waste shipment to have ever sailed.

cask

One of eight casks containing vitrified nuclear residues being loaded on board the Pacific Swan last month. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace/Gleizes)
The Pacific Swan left Cherbourg, France, December 19 bound for Mutsu Ogawara, Japan via Cape Horn. In Japan, the reprocessed nuclear waste is expected to be transported to a storage facility at the Rokkasho Mura nuclear site where Japan is building its own plutonium reprocessing facility.

The waste is a byproduct of plutonium separation from Japanese irradiated nuclear fuel at a reprocessing plant operated by French company Cogema.

Once recovered, plutonium can be reused in commercial nuclear reactors in the form of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel.

Japan currently depends on foreign sources for more than 80 percent of its energy needs. Four years ago, the country embarked on a long-term program to develop its nuclear energy industry. Integral to this plan is the recycling of spent nuclear fuel into MOX fuel.

MOX is part of the nuclear fuel cycle. A nuclear reactor uses enriched uranium fuel to produce heat, which in turn generates electricity. Plutonium is naturally produced within the reactor.

Used nuclear fuel can then either be disposed of as waste or recycled. By separating the three percent of waste from the usable uranium and plutonium, 97 percent of nuclear fuel can be recycled.

MOX fuel is manufactured by blending uranium and plutonium powders to include three to 10 percent plutonium. The powder is mixed with a lubricant and pressed into cylindrical pellets, which are baked and then housed in zirconium alloy tubes before being placed in steel casks for transport.

cask

Up to 20 more shipments are expected between Europe and Japan over the next decade. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace/Gleizes)
Overall, 16 to 18 Japanese reactors will be loaded with MOX fuel by 2010, which means up to 20 more shipments between Europe and Japan will be necessary.

Martin Prieto, of Greenpeace Argentina, called the Pacific Swan "a floating Chernobyl."

"It is a dangerous and totally unnecessary shipment," said Prieto. "We do not want it in our waters, and British Nuclear Fuels cannot claim to be making innocent passage with such a lethal cargo."

British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) is a shareholder in Pacific Nuclear Transport Limited (PNTL), which owns Pacific Swan. The vessel began its journey from Barrow in Furness, northwest England, before loading its cargo at Cherbourg.

Greenpeace believes the vessel is likely to sail through Argentina and Chile's 200 mile (322 kilometer) exclusive economic zone (EEZ). While all four of the coastal Latin American countries along the route have condemned the shipment, Chile has gone furthest by stating that the ship should not enter Chile's EEZ.

"Japan, France and the UK are ignoring the will of Latin American states that clearly expressed their opposition to the shipment," said Prieto.

"If the governments of Argentina and Chile don't send a clear message of opposition to the use of the Cape Horn route and take strong measures to avoid the use of their EEZs, they will be opening up a nuclear highway for this and future shipments.

reactor

Tokyo Electric's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo courtesy www.moxfuel.com)
"The release of even a small fraction of this cargo could lead to an environmental and public health catastrophe. To send such a dangerous cargo along the South American coast and through such notorious waters as those that surround Cape Horn, where many ships have foundered, shows a total disregard for global safety, in a shameless pursuit of profit," added Prieto.

Greenpeace claims that the Pacific Swan is carrying the most radioactive material ever produced.

"A person standing within one meter of an unshielded block would receive a lethal dose of radiation in less than one minute," says a Greenpeace statement. "If released into the environment, it would be a deadly environmental pollutant for hundreds of thousands of years."

A dedicated web site set up by BNFL and Cogema to explain the need for such shipments argues that there is "no plausible way for the cargo carried on PNTL's vessels becoming exposed to the environment."

map

Map showing the potential transport routes for nuclear waste between Europe and Japan. (Map courtesy Greenpeace)
In addition to assessments performed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and other agencies, the U.S. government's Sandia National Laboratories independently analyzed a range of scenarios at sea, says the site at www.moxfuel.com.

An environmental impact assessment was undertaken by discounting the sealing capacity of a cask on the seabed at a depth of 200 meters.

"The result of the assessment is an impact on local residents thousands of times smaller than the exposure levels a person receives from a single medical X-ray examination - or one millionth of natural background radiation levels," says the site.

"The analysis shows that the impact on the environment is even smaller in deeper water," it adds.