European Local Governments Fear Ultra-Hazardous Nuclear Shipments

EDINBURGH, Scotland, November 7, 2005 (ENS) - The transport of ultra-hazardous radioactive cargos near the shores of Scotland, England and Wales is worrying the governments of coastal communities, who fear terrorist attacks or fires would expose them and their environment to radiation. In a report issued Friday, the governments say European coastal communities are being treated as second class citizens when comes to the shipments of nuclear fuel.

Known as KIMO for the initials of its Danish name, the Local Authorities International Environmental Organization, has 128 local member governments representing over six million coastal inhabitants in 10 countries around northern Europe.

A report, issued by KIMO UK on Friday in Edinburgh, objects to the route chosen and the type of ship used by the British Nuclear Group to deliver mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel assemblies to mainland Europe.

The British Nuclear Group delivered the first four MOX assemblies it has fabricated in the Sellafield MOX Plant to Swiss utility Nordostschweizerische Kraftwerke in the spring of 2005, marking the start of a series of MOX and plutonium dioxide transports from the UK to mainland Europe.

For the past decade, MOX has been transported to and from Japan using purpose built vessels owned by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. But for MOX shipments to Sweden and possibly other destinations in Europe, the company expects to use the Atlantic Osprey, an ex-roll on roll off ferry, a ship the local governments say is not safe enough for this use.


The Atlantic Osprey is now owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the public sector cleanup body that took over ownership of BNFL's Sellafield reprocessing complex April 1, 2005. (Photo courtesy British Nuclear Group)
ôKIMO remains convinced that the transport of nuclear materials should be halted and that such materials should be stored above ground at the point of production," said newly elected KIMO International President Councillor Angus Nicolson.

"However should these shipments go ahead they must also employ the Best Available Technology and compared to the ships which are used for MOX shipments to Japan, the arrangement surrounding these proposed shipments are flawed and second rate," Nicolson said.

The recent announcement by the Swedish government to allow the Swedish company Studsvik-SVAFO, for first time in more than 20 years, to ship spent nuclear fuel to the British Sellafield plant on the Irish Sea for reprocessing, will increase the frequency of these shipments through the North Sea, the KIMO governments warned. After reprocessing, the radioactive material would be returned to Sweden as MOX fuel assemblies.

Plans also call for shipping a load of 4.7 metric tons of metallic uranium from Sweden to Sellafield. The reprocessing will generate a total volume of 1,600 liters of highly radioactive waste, which will be shipped back to Sweden for final storage.

Possible routes to Sweden could take the Atlantic Osprey through the English Channel and the North Sea, through the Irish Sea, or west of Ireland into the northeast Atlantic Ocean. The KIMO report points out that all of these routes pass through oilfields and/or fishing grounds and sensitive ecosystems.

The KIMO UK report warns that whatever route is chosen, it will pass close to one of the most densely populated areas in the world and will cross some of the busiest shipping lanes, increasing the potential for collision and making it easier for a potential terrorist attack.

"If an attack by terrorists succeeds in an incident involving a severe long-term fire, breaching shipping casks and/or sinking a nuclear transport vessel, the consequences would be comparable to the most severe accident that authorities insist is too improbable to be considered," KIMO emphasizes.


British Nuclear Group workers attend to a MOX fuel assembly at the Sellafield site. (Photo courtesy British Nuclear Group/Johnson Controls)
Of special concern to the KIMO governments is an accident which first causes the rupture of many fuel rods and is then followed by a long-duration fire. "Even if the fire smolders at a low temperature, substantial oxidation of the fuel rods can take place if the package is ruptured or the seals fail. The amount of fuel oxidized would be limited only by the duration of the fire and the availability of oxygen," they warn.

Nicholson said, "It is absolutely irresponsible in this day and age where we are requiring super tankers carrying oil to have double hulls to protect our marine environment that these dangerous cargos are being transported in an ex-roll on roll off ferry with a single engine and single hull through some of the most populated areas of Europe."

KIMO UK says the organization has been campaigning for higher shipping standards for many years.

The local governments said they worry about the lack of emergency planning in the event of a marine accident involving nuclear material.

They expressed concern about "the questionable integrity of the flasks used to transport nuclear fuel."

And their report points to evidence that "ship borne fires last longer on average and at a more intense heat than the safety criteria used in flask stress tests."

The question of liability and compensation in the event of a nuclear accident at sea is also a major concern.

The transportation of nuclear and toxic waste by sea is an issue of great concern to members of KIMO as the communities they represent depend on a clean environment and a the public perception of a pristine marine environment that produces fresh, clean and healthy resources. This is the basis of survival for many small remote rural and island communities.

The irreparable damage to this image that could arise as a result of an accident involving a ship carrying nuclear waste could have disastrous consequences on local economies notwithstanding the environmental and health hazards that could occur.


Flask containing radioactive fuel being loaded onto the purpose-built ship Pacific Pintail at Barrow Terminal. The KIMO governments say this ship is safer than the one that is planned for routes near their communities. (Photo courtesy British Nuclear Group/Johnson Controls)
In Bergen, Norway in 2002, North Sea ministers recognized the concern about the potential for an accident during the transport of radioactive material by sea. In the Bergen Declaration the ministers called for efforts at every level of government to improve regulation of the international maritime transport of radioactive materials in harmony with the UN Law of the Sea Convention.

They agreed to consider the issue of maritime transport of radioactive material at a ministerial meeting on the environmental impacts of shipping to be held in Sweden in 2006 at the latest.

The KIMO governments fear that although armed escort ships accompany MOX fuel shipments to Japan, no plans for an escort have been confirmed for the Atlantic Osprey, and the Osprey itself has not been armed with naval guns.

"No response times for reacting to a terrorist attack have been provided and in any case any assistance would likely be too late if the attack involved a missile or similar device," the KIMO report states.

The local governments point out that the Atlantic Osprey will use the Port of Workington. "Compared to Barrow, which has high security measures installed due to nuclear submarine operations as well as civilian nuclear trade, Workington Docks is significantly more open and vulnerable, and has fewer safety measures in place," according to the KIMO report.

The KIMO report questions the seaworthiness of the Osprey. Since it was acquired by the British Nuclear Group, the Atlantic Osprey has suffered a number of mishaps including an engine room fire that disabled the ship in the Manchester Ship Canal, KIMO warns.

The British Nuclear Group has repeatedly defended the seaworthiness of all their custom-built ships on the basis that, given the nuclear cargos they have to carry, they have all been individually maintained and serviced to the highest levels throughout their operational lives. But the Osprey is not a custom-built ship, it is an ex-roll on roll off vessel built in Germany.

The international marine transport of radioactive materials is essentially an unregulated practice, the KIMO UK report points out. Transport of radioactive materials was intentionally excluded from the Safety of Life at Sea convention, which is a binding international agreement mandating design specifications for ships carrying dangerous goods, as a result of intervention by the International Atomic Energy Agency, says KIMO.

The Irradiated Nuclear Fuel Code, which was adopted by the International Maritime Organization in an attempt to narrow this loophole, is only a voluntary agreement. Even under this nonbinding code, it is acceptable to transport as much as about one metric ton of reactor-grade plutonium, or about 40 MOX assemblies, on vessels that were not built for that purpose.

The full report is available on the KIMO website at: