Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Anti-nuclear campaigners were sailing Monday towards an unofficial rendezvous-at-sea with two armed British freighters carrying used nuclear fuel. Protestors claim the cargo could pose a serious security risk in the post-Sept. 11 era.
The freighters are heading to Britain from Japan, via the southwestern Pacific and the southern tip of Africa.
Their route will take them between Australia and New Zealand, and it is from these two countries the protestors are sailing in a small flotilla of yachts.
When they meet up with the British ships in the Tasman Sea, the campaigners plan to form what they described as a symbolic chain of protest across the ocean.
Onboard the two ships is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides known as MOX, which could be used in weapons. The initial transportation of the nuclear fuel from the Sellafield nuclear plant in Britain to Japan in 1999 caused an international outcry.
The Japanese subsequently refused to use the material, after it emerged that British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) had falsified safety information relating to it.
BNFL hopes to secure future business selling fuel to the Japanese nuclear power industry, but first it must take back the original defective shipment - at its own cost.
The six-week journey, through sometimes rough seas in mid-winter (in the southern hemisphere) has environmental activists up in arms. They argued that the shipment should have been treated as nuclear waste, immobilized, and stored in Japan.
In Britain, the Greenpeace organization sought legal action, but then dropped the challenge after learning that the ships had already left the Japanese port of Takahama late last week.
Greenpeace and other critics of the shipment have also seized on the international security climate in the wake of last September's terror attacks on the U.S., claiming the cargo offers a tempting target for terrorists.
"To send highly radioactive materials on a six-week, 18,000-mile journey on the high seas was a stupid idea before 11 September," Greenpeace representative Bunny McDiarmid said in Auckland.
"In today's context it can only be described as insane," she added.
Greenpeace says the cargo contains enough plutonium to make 50 nuclear bombs.
Edwin Lyman of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute was quoted earlier by the BBC as expressing concern about the shipment's potential to be used by terrorists to build either atomic devices or "dirty bombs."
"I definitely think it is irresponsible to move MOX right now, given the [security] situation," he said.
But BNFL said in a statement its two ships, the Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal, are equipped with 30mm naval cannon and have onboard armed members of a special police unit, the UK Atomic Energy Agency Constabulary. The men are reportedly veterans of elite security agencies.
Regulatory bodies in the UK and Japan had approved the security arrangements, the company said.
Those bodies were satisfied that the arrangements were "sufficient to protect the cargo against theft or sabotage and any other acts of international terrorism."
BNFL also responded to concerns about possible physical risks posed by the material, explaining that MOX fuel pellets were so durable, "If dropped into water, they would take thousands of years to dissolve."
The hard, ceramic-like pellets were, moreover, packed inside corrosion-resistant fuel rods, able to withstand water pressure at great depths. The rods in turn were transported inside heavy, steel transport casks, which have passed rigorous drop, pressure and fire tests.
For security reasons, BNFL said it would not release any details of ships' position during the voyage. Greenpeace has urged supporters around the world to help track them.
The South Pacific has long been a region sensitive about nuclear issues. In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, the U.S. tested nuclear bombs in at least four Pacific locations. In more recent decades, France has carried out tests there.
In 1986, a Greenpeace ship was bombed by French intelligence agents while docked at Auckland harbor, where it was preparing for a trip to protest French nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Also in the mid-1980s, a previous New Zealand Labor government introduced a "nuclear-free" policy. The move effectively ended the country's defense treaty with the U.S., inasmuch as nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed U.S. ships were denied docking rights.
Current Labor Prime Minister Helen Clark, who was a keen advocate of the nuclear-free policy back then, attended the departure from Auckland Sunday of the protest flotilla.
"We have advised both Britain and Japan of our opposition to such shipments through the Pacific," said her foreign minister, Phil Goff.
"While acknowledging the safeguards which have been put in place, these do not eliminate risks posed by accident or by terrorist attacks."
Wellington also announced that Air Force planes would track the movement of the two ships, to make sure that they did not enter New Zealand's 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Australia's conservative government, by contrast, has taken a low-key stance to the shipment, so much so that a Green Party lawmaker who saw off the yachts leaving from Sydney accused it of short-sightedness for not voicing opposition to what he called "this ridiculous transport of that poison cargo from one end of the earth to the other."
After this voyage, activists say, BNFL hopes to secure business in Japan that will result in up to 30 nuclear shipments between Britain and Japan over the next 15 years.
Another campaign group, the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, called for firmer opposition from Pacific nations, noting that strong protests from Caribbean and Latin American countries have in the past prevented nuclear shipments from taking the most direct sea route, via the Panama Canal.
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
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