Western Daily Press (Front Page) 14 November 2005

Environmental campaigners are warning of a ship with a deadly cargo heading towards the West. Experts say the aging vessel, complete with a payload of radioactive fuel, would be a sitting target for terrorists.

The secondhand cargo ship is being used to send Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) to Europe via the Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Although the cargo could be used to build a nuclear bomb if it fell into the wrong hands security measures have been downgraded.

Jim Duffy, a campaigner against nuclear power said: "MOX is one of the most dangerous kinds of nuclear fuel you can get. If terrorists were to put some kind of explosive on board the consequences could be monstrous

Next year, they plan to send Switzerland a consignment of mixed oxide fuel (MOX), recycled nuclear fuel made from a cocktail of uranium and plutonium, the raw material of nuclear bombs

The most obvious route from the Cumbrian plant is around Cornwall and past Devon and Dorset to Cherbourg in northern France.

MOX is deemed so dangerous that the last intercontinental shipment travelled from Britain to Japan and back by armed convoy on purpose-built ships with double hulls, twin engines, twin propulsion systems and twin radar, protected by naval guns.

But because the journey to Europe is shorter, Sellafield chiefs admit they plan to use a ship with a lower safety rating. The Atlantic Osprey, they confirmed, is a 19-year-old multipurpose cargo vessel that they bought four years ago.

In stark contrast to the Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal, which carried MOX to Japan in 1999, the Atlantic Osprey has just a single hull and is thought to have a single engine.

It is not believed to be fitted with naval cannon and is not expected to have an armed escort. And whereas the Pintail and Teal are classed as INF3 ships, the highest safety rating of the International Maritime Organisation, the Atlantic Osprey has the lower safety rating of INF2

Campaigners yesterday accused Sellafield owner British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) of treating Europeans as second-class citizens by skimping on nuclear sea transport. Deadly radioactive fuel is set to be shipped through South West waters on an old merchant vessel that was never designed for the job. Nuclear experts claim the Atlantic Osprey will be a floating fire hazard and a sitting duck for terrorists. But bosses at Sellafield say it meets international safety standards.

"This is completely irresponsible, " said Dr David Santillo, an Exeter University-based senior scientist with Greenpeace Research Laboratories. "It seems completely bizarre that BNFL would consider it less hazardous to do a shorter journey to mainland Europe than to Japan. The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. There is just as much chance of a collision there as in a longer journey over open sea. This smacks of a lowrent operation."

Jim Duffy, chairman of the Stop Hinkley pressure group in Somerset, agreed. "MOX is one of the most dangerous types of nuclear fuel you can get because it contains plutonium. If terrorists were to put some kind of explosive onboard or point an aeroplane at it, the consequences could be monstrous." he said. "Tens of thousands of people, even hundreds of thousands, could be contaminated by radiation. It's just outrageous."

The British Nuclear Group, which manages the Sellafield site as a subsidiary of BNFL, pointed out it had a first-class safety record. However, a spokeswoman confirmed the distance covered by a ship laden with nuclear material was a factor when deciding on security.

"It's all to do with having the appropriate class of vessel for the shipment, for the route and distance it's going to be transported, " she said. "We are meeting the international and national requirements for safety.

"It's totally different carrying MOX fuel to Japan than it is to Europe. The ships that went to Japan were bigger and were built differently because they had to go all the way to Japan." When asked whether next year's shipment of MOX fuel to Switzerland would travel through South West waters, the spokeswoman said she could not comment on the route because it would jeopardise security.

However, she confirmed the first delivery of MOX fuel from Sellafield to Switzerland, in May this year, did go through the Irish Sea on the Atlantic Osprey, a trip which inevitably went through Cornish waters. She also confirmed there had been a fire in the engine room of the Atlantic Osprey in 2002 while it was undergoing sea trials.

But she added: "Since the 1960s there has never been any incident resulting in the release of radioactive material." That assurance failed to impress leading independent nuclear consultant John Large, who has advised governments on nuclear issues. "I've got just one word for them, " he said. "Titanic."

He added: "Accidents can happen anywhere and international terrorism is just that - international. The best worst-case scenario is that the ship sinks. That would be bad, but at least the cargo would be difficult to recover. The worst worst-case scenarios are that the ship is attacked by terrorists or there is a fire onboard and the ship doesn't sink. Ship fires typically last more than 20 hours and are particularly intense because the heat is contained.

"In a severe ship fire, the heat could thermally stress the flask holding the MOX, the pressure would go up inside and eventually the flask would rupture, causing the highly radiotoxic fuel to break up and be released into the atmosphere.

"Another scenario is that terrorists attack the ship. If you have a chemistry degree and are a bit clever, you could extract plutonium from MOX. There would be more than enough kilograms of plutonium to make a nuclear bomb, and a rocket propelled grenade will pierce an armoured tank, so I have no doubt it could pierce a 6in-thick flask holding MOX." The Government's Office for Civil Nuclear Security declined to comment.

Cargo with chequered history on the oceans

Mixed Oxide Fuel, or MOX, is a type of reprocessed nuclear fuel made from spent uranium reactor mass. It consists of depleted uranium and up to nine per cent plutonium. BNFL sent five tonnes of MOX from Sellafield to Japan in 1999.

However, Japan rejected the cargo after discovering that data about the fuel's quality had been falsified. The MOX was sent back to Sellafield in 2002.

Sellafield has contracts with eight overseas customers to reprocess spent fuel, some of which will be turned into MOX. These countries include Switzerland, Germany and Sweden.

The Irish Government tried and failed two years ago to get the Sellafield MOX Plant shut down, claiming nuclear waste was polluting the Irish Sea and that the complex could be the target of a terror attack. But a United Nations tribunal rejected the call.

Commenting at the time, UK Energy Minister Stephen Timms said the Irish request "went far beyond protection of any rights Ireland may have in respect of this case and the tribunal has rightly rejected them."


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