The Oceanic Pintail, the only ship owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) docked in Barrow’s Ramsden Dock nuclear terminal early this morning and unloaded a cargo of ‘exotic’ nuclear materials. These comprise unirradiated plutonium/ highly enriched uranium fuels which were loaded on board at the Caithness Port of Scrabster. From Barrow the consignment was transported by rail to Sellafield, with the rail route and local railway stations under heavy police surveillance to prevent hostile actions against the ‘weapons useable’ materials which are prime targets for terrorists.
The use of the 29 year old Oceanic Pintail – now almost 5 years past her sell-by date (company practice has been to retire ships at or before 25 years of service) – and the sea route from Scotland via the often treacherous waters of the Minches from Cape Wrath southwards, has been much criticised as unnecessarily exposing such dangerous cargos to major risks. Having undertaken a familiarisation voyage to the Port of Scrabster in October 2014, the ship left Barrow for Dounreay on 7th March 2016 – concealing her route/destination by de-activating her Automatic Identification System (AIS) so that her progress could not be monitored on shipping websites. Generally used in the past only when a ship is actually carrying a nuclear cargo, turning off the AIS system even when the ship is unladen is becoming a common – but clearly not fool-proof – ploy by Barrow’s nuclear fleet to keep its noxious trading out of plain sight.
Today’s shipment on the Oceanic Pintail was the first of a number yet to be quantified by the NDA who, despite local and national objections, use Sellafield as a national dumping ground for other facilities’ nuclear detritus.
On the other side of the world, two more Barrow-based ships are scheduled to load 331kgs of plutonium from a Japanese research establishment at Tokai Mura in the next few days. Departing from Barrow on 19th January, the armed ships Pacific Heron and Pacific Egret left the docks with extra security crews and AIS turned off.
The ship’s destination – to Japan and onward to the US Port of Charleston – was already known to some observers despite the best efforts of official secrecy and subterfuge. Caught transiting the Panama Canal on 6th February (where all Canal Webcams were turned off during the ships’ passage) the Pacific Heron and Pacific Egret docked in the Japanese Port of Kobe on 4th March.
On leaving Kobe, the two Barrow-based ships – owned by Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd (PNTL) and managed by the NDA’s wholly owned subsidiary International Nuclear Services (INS) – are scheduled to load the plutonium cargo at the Port of Tokai Mura or nearby port around 20th March and, once loaded, head for Charleston via the Cape of Good Hope. The use of the shorter route via the Panama Canal for the loaded ships hs been ruled out by the US Department of Energy (DOE).
As an indication of the unsavoury and dangerous nature of the cargo, the Pacific Heron and Pacific Egret are likely to be closely escorted out of local waters by heavily armed Japanese Coastguard and/or Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force vessels, many of which are already present in the area.