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Monday, July 19, 1999 Published at 17:52 GMT 18:52 UK


Stormy waters for nuclear shipments

Caribbean governments are "outraged" at the shipments

Two shipments of plutonium fuel heading for Japan can expect protests at every stage of their controversial journey.

Opponents of the hazardous shipments, which left port on Monday, fear environmental contamination, possible hijacking of the ships and nuclear proliferation.

Already a protest at Barrow, north west England, has led to a short delay in the departure of one ship.

The Pacific Teal is due to pick up plutonium fuel at Cherbourg from La Hague nuclear plant in France and transport it to Japan.

[ image: BNFL says the guns will deter attack]
BNFL says the guns will deter attack
Another ship, the Pacific Pintail, is taking plutonium fuel from the Sellafield nuclear plant and will sail in tandem with the Teal to Japan.

The Teal and Pintail shipments mark the first transfer of so-called "direct use" nuclear weapons material - considered easiest to convert into bombs - since 1992. At least 80 plutonium shipments are planned over the next decade, campaigners fear.

Details of the exact route the ships will take is being kept secret for security reasons, but concern is growing at points along the potential transport routes.

Greenpeace protesters were joined at Barrow by South Korean environmentalists, who fear the ships would pass through the Straits of Korea en route to Japan, where they are destined for reactors in Takahama and Fukushima.

Nam-hee Kwon, of the Korean Federation of Environmental Movements, said: "These transports threaten the Korean environment as they pass through the East Sea and risk creating further nuclear proliferation in Asia."

Further protests are expected in the South Korean capital Seoul, in Osaka and Tokyo in Japan and Taipei in Taiwan.

Last week 14 Caribbean heads of government, signalled their "outrage" at the shipments.

Terrorist attacks

Caribbean countries have opposed the shipment of spent nuclear fuel from Japan to Sellafield via the Panama Canal in the past, but the prospect of dozens of shipments of potentially far more dangerous refined plutonium fuel going in the opposite direction has increased concern.

US insistence that the ships must be armed to resist terrorist attacks has futher increased Caribbean fears.

An earlier appeal to the US to prohibit such shipments - it controls vessels through the Panama Canal - had failed, causing increased resentment.

'Dangerous threat'

The heads of governments of Caricom, which includes Commonwealth countries such as the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana, said in a statement they were "particularly outraged at the callous and contemptuous disregard of their appeals by the governments of France, the United Kingdom and Japan to desist from this dangerous misuse of the Caribbean Sea".

They added: "In light of these situations heads of government have vowed to take all necessary steps to protect their people and the fragile ecology of the Caribbean Sea from this highly dangerous threat to which they are now habitually exposed, as well as to safeguard the livelihood of the millions of people who depend on that unique resource for their well being."

[ image: Greenpeace: Environmental contamination fears]
Greenpeace: Environmental contamination fears
The Pintail and Teal have been armed with 30mm naval guns and a high-speed armed boat, making them the first armed British merchant ships since World War II.

However, the Oxford Research Group said the ships were inadequately armed against possible terrorists or agents of a rogue state.

British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) denied the plutonium was at risk and said the security arrangements fully satisfied a US-Japan nuclear pact, under which Tokyo needs US consent to ship plutonium.

The company's head of transport, Alastair Thomas, said: "The cargo itself is secured behind multiple layers of physical protection.

"It is inconceivable that militant protesters could ever gain access to the plutonium contained in the fuel in the transport casks.

"The most that could be achieved by a stunt is endangering the people on board the ships."

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