The decision to scrap one of the current fleet of nuclear cargo ships and assessing options to enlarge the fleet were announced today at the Ramsden Dock Stakeholder meeting at Barrow by International Nuclear Services (INS), the wholly owned subsidiary company of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).
The committee was told that the Atlantic Osprey had made its final voyage and was to be withdrawn from service, laid up at Barrow docks and eventually scrapped. The ship was purchased third-hand by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) from a German company in 2002. Originally built as a roll on roll off car ferry, the ship was converted for the transport of nuclear materials by BNFL, and in 2005 its ownership passed to the NDA. Built in 1986 and recently based largely at the Port of Workington, the ship has transported a range of non-nuclear cargo around Europe and has shipped a range of nuclear materials to and from Europe and the United States including High Level Waste (HLW) and Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX).
The only ship of the fleet not to have been custom-built for nuclear transports, the 27-year old Atlantic Osprey has long been the target of concern, criticism and direct actions from Greenpeace and CORE because of its age and lack of safety/security features compared to those deemed necessary for other ships of the fleet. Most recently (November 2012) it was targeted by Greenpeace activists as it approached the port of Nordenham near Bremerhaven with a consignment of MOX fuel for Germany’s Grohnde power station (the last such fuel to be produced at the now defunct Sellafield MOX Plant SMP). The transport had been made despite concerns of its continued use for MOX transport having been expressed earlier by the French Safety Authority ASN.
The only other NDA owned ship of the fleet is the Oceanic Pintail which, in its previous life as the Pacific Pintail had attracted world attention in 1999 for its role in the highly contentious shipping of MOX fuel from Sellafield to Japan (and plutonium from the US to France) attended by its sister ship Pacific Teal – both armed with triple naval canon for protection from terrorist attacks. The ships were the first UK cargo vessels to be armed since the end of the Second World War.
Previously operated by Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd (PNTL), ownership of the Pacific Pintail passed to the NDA in 2011. Renamed as the Oceanic Pintail – and stripped of her naval canon – she has undertaken relatively few voyages since then. At the time of her transfer to the NDA, INS had suggested that the vessel might remain in service until 2015. Like the Atlantic Osprey, the Pintail (built in 1987) has also survived the company’s usual practice of retiring ships when they have completed 25 years of service – the extensions to life being condemned on safety grounds by CORE and others. Currently the Oceanic Pintail is undergoing joint exercises with the MoD in the Poole Bay/Isle of Wight area of the English Channel. Internet ship tracking sites show the Royal Navy’s coastal patrol vessel HMS Tyne as being involved. INS would not be drawn on the reason for the exercise.
Today’s stakeholder meeting was also told that INS was looking at options to increase the size of the fleet from its current level of four (excluding the Atlantic Osprey). Other than the NDA owned Oceanic Pintail, the three remaining ships are operated by PNTL – the Pacific Heron, Pacific Egret and Pacific Grebe, all custom-built in Japan and coming into service in 2008, 2010 and 2011 respectively. All are currently in ‘warm lay-up’ at Barrow. The Heron and Egret, now armed with naval canon, have recently returned to Barrow after transporting MOX fuel from France to Japan. The Pacific Grebe, unarmed, is dedicated to returning HLW to Japan from Sellafield. Once again, INS would not be drawn on the reason for expanding the fleet despite being challenged as to where any new business was likely to come from. It would seem likely however that a replacement for the ageing Oceanic Pintail’s European and Atlantic shipping role could be needed fairly soon.
Direct Rail Services (DRS) – another wholly owned subsidiary of the NDA and responsible for the haulage of nuclear materials by rail within the UK – were also present at today’s stakeholder meeting and updated the committee on the rail accident at Barrow Docks in September this year when two of three empty nuclear fuel transport ‘flasks’ being returned from Japan had derailed. Though an investigation by Network Rail has yet to be completed, DRS confirmed that its own investigation attributed the cause of the accident to the failure of a member of the train crew to properly operate the track’s ground frame/points.