After a 10-week voyage from Japan, Barrow-based ships Pacific Egret and Pacific Heron docked in Charleston’s naval yards in the early hours of 4th June 2016 – at least 3 weeks later than projected. Once unloaded, the cargo – consisting of 331kgs plutonium from Japan’s Tokai Mura research facility and a quantity of Highly Enriched uranium (most of the materials originally sourced from the UK) – was transported to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Both ships sailed from Charleston in the early morning of 6th June heading back to the UK.
Although the contentious shipment of weapons-usable material was undertaken under utmost secrecy and with the ships’ Automatic Identification Sytems (AIS) turned off in order to remain ‘incognito’, their progress has been tracked by CORE and others since leaving their home port of Barrow-in-Furness on 19th January 2016 – from entering the Panama Canal on 6th February (when all Canal webcams were deliberately shut down), their arrival at Japan’s Kobe port on 3rd March, the plutonium loading on the Pacific Egret at the small nuclear port at Tokai Mura and departure to the US on 22nd March, to their tug-assisted journey up Charleston’s Cooper River to the naval yards.
With the Pacific Heron travelling as armed escort to the Pacific Egret (both ships are armed with naval canon and carry additional security swat squads drawn from the UK’s Civil Nuclear Constabulary) on the voyage from Japan to the US, the route options appear to have been limited to the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn, with the use of the Panama Canal for such a dangerous cargo previously ruled out by the US Authorities. Either of the Cape routes would have seen an estimated date of arrival of the ships at Charleston between 15th to 20th May 2016. Their eventual arrival on 4th June – some 3 weeks later than projected – raises serious questions as to where and how those weeks were spent (it is not company policy for ships to retain dangerous cargos any longer than necessary) or whether one or both ships suffered mechanical or other problems on route from Japan. The latter may be given some credence by the notification that, on their respective return to the UK around 17th June, the Pacific Heron is bound for Barrow but Pacific Egret is destined for the docks at Falmouth where dry docking is often carried out the UK’s nuclear cargo ships.
Despite the reticence by ship managers International Nuclear Services (INS) or the US/UK authorities to comment on such ship movements, the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has been forced to react to the release of news to the US media of the ships’ arrival and unloading at Charleston by Director of the Savannah River Site Watch group Tom Clements who was monitoring ship movements in the Port. In its press release on 6th June NNSA has confirmed not only the arival of the 331kgs of plutonium at Savannah River but also that it will be conditioned there for eventual disposal at the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Plant (WIPP) at Carlsbad in New Mexico. The highly enriched uranium was transported from Charleston to the Y-12 national security complex at Oakridge in Tennessee where it will be down-blended to low enrichment levels.
The shipment from Japan to the US falls under the US-led Global Threat Reduction Initiative – now known as the Material Management & Minimisation (M3) programme whereby plutonium and other nuclear materials are removed from worldwide facilities to the US for safekeeping. Such plutonium is descibed under M3 as ‘posing a threat to national security, being susceptible to use in an improvised nuclear device and preventing a high risk of theft or diversion’. Whilst the aim of the programme may be laudable, it nevertheless brings into question the wisdom of exposing such dangerous materials to trans-world shipment – especially in this instance where, without any explanation from the Authorities, the Pacific Egret and Pacific Heron appear to have lost their way (3 unaccounted weeks) somewhere between Japan and the US.