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Nuclear Transport Ship Fire Raises Safety Concerns

London/Auckland, March 27th/28th 2002

One of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) nuclear transport ships, the Atlantic Osprey (1) caught fire during its voyage from dry dock in Manchester to the Irish Sea, it was revealed today.

The ship, which was on route to the Irish Sea for sea trials, had recently undergone modifications and upgraded in dry dock. The fire on Monday 25th March, occurred in the starboard engine around 12.00hrs. The crew failed to suppress the fire by themselves and following activation of the ship’s fire suppressing system and with assistance of the Salford Fire Department, they confirmed the fire was extinguished. BNFL have been unable at this time to confirm the length of time the fire burned. The ship was returned to dry dock at Salford Quays.

“Despite the claims of the nuclear industry, there is always a risk that nuclear transport ships will have serious accidents. This time we were lucky – no nuclear cargo and no injuries,” said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International.

“However, this clearly demonstrates that it can and does happen. This time it happened in the Manchester Ship Canal; next time it could be ship loaded with plutonium in Japan or en route via the Tasman Sea with a nuclear cargo.

“There needs to be immediate and full disclosure of all the details of this incident and a thorough review of fire protection on all of BNFL’s ships, with no cover-up,” Shaun Burnie said.

The engine fire comes just weeks before two other BNFL operated nuclear transport ships, the Pacific Pintail and the Pacific Teal, are expected to depart from Barrow-in- Furness, in the north of England for Japan for what is the most controversial nuclear transport in history. They will transport a cargo of plutonium MOX fuel back from Japan, which was rejected by its Japanese owners. It was shipped to Japan in 1999 when it was then revealed that BNFL, the producers of the fuel, had deliberately falsified vital Quality Control data.

The Japanese Government disclosed January 30th that the Tasman Sea could be a possible route for this shipment.

“Governments around the world are opposed to BNFL’s nuclear transports. This latest incident will only increase their anxiety about the risk of accident. If this fire had taken place off the coast of one of these countries with a plutonium or nuclear waste cargo the consequences could have been catastrophic. It is an ominous warning of what could happen to the two BNFL ships due to leave Barrow for Japan in a matter of weeks. These transports ships and this industry need to be stopped,” said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International.

International standards for nuclear transports are fundamentally flawed. The containers used to transport plutonium MOX fuel on the Arneb/Atlantic Osprey are classified as ‘Type-B’ under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines. As such they are required to resist temperatures of up 800 degrees centigrade for 30 minutes. However, ship fires regularly burn at temperatures in excess of 1100 degrees centigrade. The average burning time of a fire on vessels at sea is in excess of 24 hours in spaces with machinery, such as the fire on the Osprey.

The Irish Government is currently fighting two international legal actions against the UK Government citing safety issues of nuclear transports, lack of consultation and compliance with terms of the United Nations Law of the Sea. They are also considering legal action under the International Law of the Sea to stop the shipment of plutonium MOX fuel from Japan to the UK. In a further sign of opposition, Panama is currently debating legislation that would prohibit nuclear transports through the Panama Canal.(2)

Greenpeace supports the right of en-route states threatened by nuclear shipments to have prior notification and consultation on issues related to the safety and security of the shipments. No independent Environmental Impact Assessment has been conducted on these shipments, including the ability of coastal states to manage serious accidents, including fires, involving dangerous nuclear cargoes.

The Atlantic Osprey, operating as the Arneb, transported numerous cargoes of plutonium MOX fuel from the German port of Bremerhaven to the Dounreay nuclear complex during the mid-late 1990’s. There was widespread opposition to the shipment from Greenpeace and politicians in Germany and the UK citing safety and security concerns. In late 2001, the vessel, still operating as the Arneb, moved hundreds of kilograms of plutonium back from Dounreay to Germany in several voyages across the North Sea. The safety of nuclear transports was hotly debated at the Environment Ministers Conference on the North Sea only last week in Bergen, Norway, with the UK Government claiming that the ships used were of the highest standard.


Notes:
1 – The Atlantic Osprey, formerly MV Arneb was built in Hamburg in 1986, and has a gross tonnage of 3640 tonnes, a length of 88.57m, and a speed of 13 knots and is classified by Lloyds Registry as ‘ice strengthened’ and class INF2 (Irradiated Nuclear Fuel Code). This will permit the carriage of irradiated fuel, high level nuclear waste and MOX fuel. In February 2001, it underwent a Port State Control inspection at Hull where a number of deficiencies were found in a range of inspection categories, which included safety in general, fire safety measures and crew certification. Between November 16th and mid- December the Osprey made four voyages from Scrabster, near Dounreay to the port of Bremerhaven, carrying in total approximately 500kg of plutonium contained in 82 MOX fuel assemblies.

BNFL plans to use the ship for transporting plutonium MOX fuel between the UK and mainland Europe, in particular Germany, as well as shipments to and from the United States. It is also believed that it will be used to transport nuclear waste from Dounreay to Sellafield.

2 – The Panamanian Environment Committee is due to vote soon on legislation that would prohibit nuclear transports from using the Panama Canal. Citing safety and security concerns, the nuclear industry has continually refused to conduct environmental impact assessments as required under the United Nations International Law of the Sea.

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