Greenpeace Denounces Arctic Route for Nuke Waste

MOSCOW, Russia, January 24, 2001 (ENS) - A plan to ship highly radioactive nuclear waste from Europe to Japan via the Arctic has been described as "desperate madness" by international environmental group Greenpeace.

According to the Japanese Kyodo news service, the Japanese nuclear industry and Russian government are negotiating a new northern route through the Arctic because of growing public and political opposition to established routes between Europe and Japan.


A Russian nuclear icebreaker. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace International)
The Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPCO) plans to make a test shipment this year with the first full nuclear transport taking place in 2002, reports Kyodo.

The nuclear waste to be transported is a byproduct of plutonium separation from Japanese irradiated nuclear fuel at the French state controlled COGEMA La Hague reprocessing plant and the British state controlled British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) Sellafield reprocessing plant.

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.

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.

Greenpeace International nuclear spokesman Tobias Muenchmeyer warned that a new route through the ice will not chill protests.


Map illustrating potential routes for nuclear waste shipments to Japan. (Map courtesy Greenpeace International)
"We believe that this shamelessly irresponsible scheme will melt away as soon as the spotlight of public opinion and political pressure is brought to bear," said Muenchmeyer.

"The world would be facing an unbelievably dangerous and bizarre convoy. An old Soviet designed nuclear ice-breaker smashing through Polar ice ahead of another ship carrying a deadly cargo of Japanese nuclear waste coming from UK or France.

"It is difficult to say who is crazier: those who propose such a scheme or those who would agree to it - both must be mad. The last thing the fragile Arctic needs is more nuclear contamination," said Muenchmeyer.

Greenpeace speculates the new transport routes will be through the English Channel and the North Sea, along the Norwegian Coast to Russia. This would put countries enroute, such as Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the United States (Alaska) and most of all, Russia, in serious danger of a nuclear catastrophe, said the group.

Alternatively, material could be shipped via the Irish Sea between Ireland and Scotland, or west of Ireland into the Atlantic.

The Northern Arctic route would require the use of vessels from Russia's nuclear powered ice breaking fleet. The three most powerful of the fleet are the Rossiya, Sovetskiy Soyuz and Jamal - all based near Murmansk.

"The nuclear industry is being forced to consider extreme, and frankly desperately dangerous measures to avoid the widespread international opposition to their deadly trade," said Shaun Burnie, of Greenpeace International.

"But taking the notorious Northern Arctic route is no solution. It will still put many countries at unacceptable risk of environmental contamination.

"Instead of these reckless plans they should halt their nuclear transports and stop reprocessing in Europe."

Greenpeace claims the glassified high level waste is one of the most radioactive materials ever produced. A person standing within one meter of an unshielded block would receive a lethal dose of radiation in less than one minute, said the group.

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 become exposed to the environment."

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

"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.