Contentious plans by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to ship some 26 tonnes of ‘exotic’ nuclear materials (irradiated and unirradiated plutonium and highly enriched uranium fuels) from Dounreay to Sellafield have moved a major step closer following recent sea and port trials in Scottish waters undertaken by the NDA’s ship Oceanic Pintail which is based at Barrow-in-Furness.
The plans ‘for trials’, first announced by the NDA at a Barrow Docks stakeholder meeting in July this year (see CORE Briefing 08/14) are clearly now being advanced by the NDA with the movement last week of the Oceanic Pintail from Barrow to Dounreay’s local port of Scrabster. Arriving at the port on 1st October, the ship could be tracked undertaking port and offshore familiarisation sorties until 3rd October when she left Scrabster to return to Barrow. On her arrival at Barrow’s Ramsden Dock nuclear terminal, the ship’s armed security crew (provided by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary’s Strategic Escort Group) were clearly present on the ship – providing further confirmation that the ship’s visit to Scotland was directly related to the proposed Dounreay shipments.
A major concern expressed by CORE in its July Briefing related to the treacherous waters of the Minches – from Cape Wrath in the north to the Mull of Kintyre in the south – through which the dangerous Dounreay cargo would have to be navigated. Subsequently picked up by the Herald and Scotsman newspapers, Scottish opposition to the proposed shipments has been voiced by FoE Scotland, Highlands Against Nuclear Transport, a range of politicians and others.
Today that opposition takes on an extra level of urgency given last night’s drama involving another nuclear materials carrier in the Moray Firth off the north-east Scottish coast. The Danish-flagged ship Parida, sailing from Dounreay to Antwerp with a cargo of Intermediate Level Wastes (ILW, cemented in 500 ltr drums) suffered a debilitating fire that left the ship drifting and ‘not under command’. As a result, the nearby Beatrice oil platform in the Moray Firth was evacuated by helicopter with 52 workers removed because of the possible risk of a collision (BBC News 8th October). Eventually taken under tow, the ship is currently anchored in the Cromarty Firth – the event under close monitoring by the Scottish Government.
The 5800 tonne Parida, a roll-on roll-off cargo vessel, was built in Turkey in 1999. By comparison, the Oceanic Pintail was built in 1987 and at 27 years of age, has well exceeded the 25-year shelf-life that has historically been enforced on Barrow’s fleet of nuclear cargo carriers.
Justified concerns about the age of the Oceanic Pintail and its continued use as a dangerous nuclear materials transport vessel now take on an added relevance, especially given the Department of Transport’s withdrawal of emergency tow coverage for the notoriously difficult waters of the Minches in 2013. For should the Oceanic Pintail suffer the same fate as the Parida, its rescue would now be reliant on a BP tow vessel from the Shetland/Orkney area and result in an extended rescue time lapse that could seriously jeopardise the safe recovery of the ship and its radioactive cargo.
The Oceanic Pintail was transferred to NDA ownership in 2012. Prior to transfer the ship was operated by Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd (PNTL) as the Pacific Pintail and employed almost exclusively on nuclear transports to and from Japan. Along with her sister ship Pacific Teal she was fitted with ‘physical protection equipment’ in the form of three naval canon at Barrow in 1999 in preparation for shipping mixed oxide fuel (MOX) fuel from Sellafield to Japan the same year with an armed security crew and escorted by the Pacific Teal. For her transfer to the NDA, the naval canon were removed and fitted on the Pacific Egret – one of three new ships that have recently join the PNTL fleet at Barrow.
The Parida’s compromised voyage from Dounreay to Antwerp is one of a number of contractual ‘waste returns’ to Belgium whose highly enriched uranium (HEU) research reactor fuel was reprocessed at Dounreay. A total of some 150 drums of ILW have been assigned for return to Belgium’s Mol research reactor.