Marine Log

November 22, 2006

Local authorities slam RO/RO shipment of nuclear fuel

An international association of local authorities is warning that a planned shipment of nuclear fuel by sea is both an environmental hazard and a potential terrorist target.

The shipment in question will be the second to make use of a converted roll-on/roll-off ferry, the Atlantic Osprey, to transport MOX (mixed oxide fuel) from Sellafeld, on England's northwest coast, to the French port of Cherbourg.

MOX is a blend of plutonium and natural uranium, reprocessed uranium, or depleted uranium which behaves similarly to the low enriched uranium feed for which most nuclear reactors were designed. An attraction of MOX fuel is that it is a way of disposing of surplus weapons-grade plutonium.

The concerns about the Sellafield-Cherbourg shipment are being voiced by KIMO--an international association of local authorities. Originally founded to address the clean up of pollution in the North Sea, KIMO now has broader aims and over 128 members in 10 countries.

Kimo says that "in the next couple of days" the Atlantic Osprey, owned by the British Nuclear Group, will transport 1.25 tonnes of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) fuel containing about 90 kg of plutonium to Swiss utility Nordostschweizerische Kraftwerke (NOK).

"The route will pass close to one of the most densely populated areas in the world and will cross some of the busiest shipping lanes, therefore increasing the potential for collision and making it easier for a potential terrorist attack," says KIMO.

"Traditionally MOX has been transported to and from Japan using purpose built vessels that are of the best available technology currently in service," says KIMO. "However shipments of MOX to Switzerland, of which this is the second, are using the Atlantic Osprey, an ex-roll on roll off ferry. The Atlantic Osprey has a single hull, single engine and will travel unescorted throughout its journey unlike the shipments to Japan which travel in purpose built vessels with twin engines, double hulls and naval armament, with two vessels travelling together to provide support in case of an attack."

KIMO charges that "the lack of emergency planning in the event of a marine accident involving nuclear material is also a serious issue along with the questionable integrity of the flasks used to transport nuclear fuel. Evidence shows that shipborne fires last longer on average and at a more intense heat than the safety criteria used in flask stress."

The potential impact on coastal communities from an accident or terrorist attack would be "devastating," says KIMO.

"KIMO remains convinced that the transport of nuclear materials should be halted and that such materials should be stored at the point of production," says KIMO International President Councillor Angus Nicolson. "However should these shipments go ahead Governments should be insisting that the highest standards of ship and security arrangements are in place to protect their citizens."

Nicolson says that "Best Available Technology (BAT) should be applied to the ships and flasks used in European shipments and should be at least to the same standard to the ships that are used for MOX shipments to Japan. The arrangements surrounding these proposed shipments are flawed and second rate."

"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 cargoes 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 with no escort," says Nicolson.

British Nuclear Group is owned by the British Government . It operates the Atlantic Osprey shipments as part of its spent fuel services.

British Nuclear Group describes the Atlantic Osprey as a "multipurpose cargo vessel that meets IMO's INF2 classification.

A RO/RO vessel is used for these voyages since the MOX is contained in purpose-built packages that are then loaded into a high security vessel that is transported by the ship.

British Nuclear Group says that a "safety in depth system" is applied that provides a series of barriers to protect the materials, packaging and transport vehicles.

A transport plan governs all aspects of the voyage, as it does for any voyage involving nuclear materials. The overall plan is subject to the approval of the United Kingdom Government's independent security regulator, the Office for Civil Nuclear Security (OCNS).

The physical protection measures in the transport plan are reviewed and take account of a threat assessment carried out by U.K. competent authorities. The review bodies must be satisfied that the physical protection arrangements are sufficient to protect the cargo against theft or sabotage and any other acts of international terrorism.

The physical protection measures taken to secure the vessel and cargo against potential threats meet the standards required by the United Kingdom Government's independent security regulator, OCNS and are in line with international requirements and recommendations.

British Nuclear Group says a fully trained and equipped team of marine and nuclear experts is available on a 24-hour emergency standby system, required by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), to deal with the unlikely event of an emergency situation.