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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 66, September 2002

News Review

Controversial Nuclear Shipment Leaves Japan for Britain

On July 4, a ship carrying 560 pounds of mixed oxide (MOX) uranium and plutonium left port in Takahama, Japan, bound for the UK. In 1999, the material was shipped, for use in nuclear reactors, to the Kansai Electric Power Company by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL). The Japanese company insisted on returning the consignment after BNFL admitted providing false data on its condition.

Controversy and protest surrounded both the original shipment of the material and the start of its two-month return journey. Critics characterise the use of MOX for power generation as an inappropriate use of fissile material, increasing the amount of potentially weapons-grade plutonium and uranium available - and subject to diversion, attack or theft - in the commercial sector. Likewise, the transportation of such material over large distances has been heavily criticised for running the risk of accident or terrorist interdiction. As Irish Environment Minister Martin Cullen complained (July 4): "This type of shipment is totally unacceptable to the world at large and the international community... The shipment of such materials through the Irish Sea represents an unacceptable risk to the environment of Ireland and the health and well-being of its population." A Greenpeace statement (July 4) warned: "Security concerns are a major issue to countries along the tens of thousands of kilometres between Japan and the United Kingdom. The ships are slow, lightly armed, and vulnerable to armed attack. The plutonium contained in this one cargo is sufficient for fifty nuclear weapons if stolen." Both companies and governments involved insist that sufficient security precautions have been taken to prevent any incident.

Reports: Nuclear cargo ship leaves Japan, security tight, Reuters, July 4; Japan defends nuclear fuel decision, Associated Press, July 5.

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© 2002 The Acronym Institute.