Secrecy tightens over plutonium shipments from Japan to US

| 21st March 2016
The Pacific Heron moored at Falmouth. Photo: Tim Green via Flickr (CC BY)
The Pacific Heron moored at Falmouth. Photo: Tim Green via Flickr (CC BY)
Two heavily armed, UK registered ships are currently engaged in the transport of UK sourced plutonium across the Pacific, writes Tim Deere-Jones. Details of their safety inspection records, survey status, voyage routes and location have been suppressed in the interests of security but the lack of transparency breaches a number of international safety standards.
On the basis that 'silence is consent' it may be assumed that successive UK administrations support the nuclear industry's flouting of basic principles of international maritime safety management and transparency laid out in UN and European Conventions.

The two ships, the Pacific Heron and Pacific Egret are Irradiated Nuclear Fuel (INF3) carriers and owned by the Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd (PNTL).

They are linked to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority which is in turn, sponsored by the UK Dept of Energy and Climate Change.

All that was officially stated, is that the two ships left the UK bound for Japan where they will load the plutonium and transport it to the US.

The five vessels of the original PNTL fleet were retired from INF3 service and replaced by 3 new builds after a 'whistle blower' revealed that early vessels suffered from 'run away corrosion' of steel plating and structure in the double hull sections.

Following a number of marine pollution disasters there have been growing demands from maritime safety organisations, NGOs and governments for greater public transparency of information about shipping standards and safety. One area of interest has been access to vessel design plans of vessels claiming innovative safety features, particularly those claiming 'un-sinkability', especially in the case of ships carrying highly hazardous cargo.

PNTL have provided contradictory descriptions of the double hull features of the new ships as follows: "The cargo compartments are protected by a double hull" and vessels have "double hull throughout". However it is unclear if only the cargo compartments are double hulled, or if the entire vessel (from bow to stern) is double hulled.

If only the cargo compartment (about 60% of the ship's overall length) is protected, collision or grounding could breach the hull elsewhere. Thus engine room, bow thrusters compartment and vessel and cargo put at risk of total loss. Open access to the design and build plans for the new ships would clarify such contradictions.

PNTL publicity carries 'portrait' photographs and artists impressions of the new ships. This material provides no supporting, detailed information for the accompanying claims for 'defence in depth' features and 'un-sinkability'. The PR states that the design of the replacement vessels is based on the 'successful design' of the original vessels. This is not reassuring in the context of reported flaws of the earlier design.

Despite the calls for transparency, PNTL management has not disclosed detailed design and building plans in order to facilitate independent expert scrutiny. Both historical and current attempts to engage with the NDA on this issue continue to be un-successful.

'Spill response plans' for INF3 vessels.

Under UN Conventions, sovereign states are expected to take control of marine anti pollution response, and the polluting vessel, in order to ensure full control of all aspects of response, pollution prevention and the mitigation of public health and environmental impacts and 'protect the overriding public interest'.

Thus, in the UK, the Secretary of State for the Department of Transportation, elects a representative to operate national plans and to manage the incident. The 'representative' has the right to decide all tactics for spill response and salvage and whether to take the vessel into a coastal 'Safe Haven', out to sea away from the coast or to sink it. However, these powers do not appear to extend to INF3 carriers.

The 2000 National Contingency Plan (NCP), operated by the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) for responding to at-sea spills of hazardous and noxious substances, contains one small paragraph on radioactive spills. This confirms that planning for any response to an INF3 pollution event is NOT included in the NCP.

The NCP explained that PNTL have a set of 'Special Arrangements' for marine incidents, which would be initiated and operated by them, that they have the sole rights to re-writing and editing and that the Special Arrangements are private and confidential and not available for public scrutiny.

Both the Department of Transport and the MCA confirm that they cannot divulge the contents of the Special Arrangements because they are the private property of PNTL and 'commercial in-confidence'. There is no reference to radioactivity in the 2014 edition of the NCP so it seems that the Special Arrangements still stand as the only response to an at sea spill of INF 3 material.

The UN's International Maritime Organisation and the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) also confirm they have not had formal sight of the Special Arrangements, or an opportunity to discuss, consult, or offer input. The nuclear industry, through PNTL, and with the acquiescence of national government and international agencies, has captured responsibility for the sole control of at-sea incidents involving INF ships.

In the process, they have also achieved an agreement with those bodies, which is contrary to the spirit of national marine pollution planning for other noxious and hazardous transports, where oversight and public input from independent experts is encouraged by publication of, and public consultation on, NCPs.

The secret journeys of ships carrying dangerous materials

European coastal states and their local authorities are at the forefront of marine pollution response should it impact upon their regional fisheries, inshore waters, coastline and coastal population. Such entities are expected to have emergency response plans and trained personnel ready for action if necessary and their response is supported by the operation of the national marine pollution plan (except in the case of INF3 events)

Coastal entities like these, are, in the case of most hazardous cargos, situated on regular routes and aware of the hazardous cargos transported past their coasts. However INF3 cargos are not only relatively infrequent, but also not confined to regular routes and, on the basis of security concerns, PNTL routinely conceals route details before the start, and during the course, of transports, though they may divulge the final destination.

Under the International Safety of Mariners Code all cargo vessel over 300 tonnes, must carry permanently active Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to enable maritime authorities to identify vessels and allow them to 'see and be seen' and avoid collisions and other hazards. Recent searches on AIS recording sites confirm that such action is now routine.

However, INF3 shippers, under the guise of 'security concerns', breach these globally accepted safety standards. On Feb 20th sites reported no current AIS Report for the Pacific Heron or Pacific Egret since Jan 16th: and showed both vessels moored at their normal UK base in Barrow as the latest report.

This is contradicted to other sources which proved that both ships were transiting the Panama Canal, without any INF3 cargo during that period. Plainly, it is PNTL policy to modify normal operations, switch off their AIS, become invisible and ignore the international, safety based philosophy behind the AIS deployment.

During their transit of the Panama Canal, and in breach of normal practice, the PNTL vessels were allowed to jump the queue of vessels, and fast tracked through the system while the permanent canal-side web cams were turned off. Although the PNTL ships were carrying heavily armed nuclear constabulary and naval canon, neither vessel was carrying any radioactive cargo. In that context such precautions are unnecessary, unless intended to restrict publicity and anti nuclear campaign groups.

Transparency obscured - PNTL should not be above the law

The 1988 Lisbon Quality Shipping Conference concluded that the dire lack of public information about vessel safety demanded greater transparency. Subsequently, the EC and the Maritime Administrations of European nations agreed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to collate safety-related information on ships, from all available sources, and make it publicly available under the website name EQUASIS.

Equasis is an international data base covering the world fleet, which provides safety related information on ships and is intended to reduce substandard shipping. It addresses a public concern, has no commercial purpose and seeks to promote the exchange of unbiased information and to provide those involved in maritime transport and safety with better information about the safety performance of ships and ship owners. Equasis relies on active co-operation from all players involved in the maritime industry.

In the last few weeks, PNTL have removed all of the data, for its entire fleet, from EQUASIS so that the survey, classification and safety inspection status of their vessels is now secret, regardless of whether they are carrying INF cargo or not.

In doing so, PNTL has breached the transparency principles upheld by the Lisbon Conference, the European Council, national Maritime Authorities and the Equasis website. While it is hard to see how access to such data would present a terrorist threat to shipments of INF3, its suppression certainly does prevent any form of independent oversight of the vessel's seaworthiness.

National Governments and international maritime safety agencies appear unwilling to prevent this and have certainly not spoken out against the now, all pervading secrecy surrounding INF3 shipments.

On the principle that 'silence is consent' it may be assumed that successive UK administrations support the nuclear industry's attempts to flout basic principles of international maritime safety management and transparency laid out in UN and European Conventions and MoU.



Tim Deere-Jones is a marine radioactivity researcher and consultant. He has been researching INF 3 shipments since 1999 and written reports and briefings on the subject for Greenpeace International and the UK Nuclear Free Local Authorities.

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