The International Nuclear Services company that manages ships owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has confirmed that the first ‘return’ shipment of HLW to Switzerland from Sellafield will be made from Barrow Docks in early to mid-September on the Oceanic Pintail.
The ship will be carrying three transport flasks holding a total of some 84 containers (around 42 tonnes) of HLW in vitrified glass form bound for the Swiss utility Kernkraftwerk Gosgen-Daniken AG (KKG). It will be the first time that the ageing Oceanic Pintail has transported HLW and tests to ‘prove’ the ship’s ability to accommodate the TN81 transport flasks in its cargo hold were completed in 2011 following the arrival of the first of three empty transport flasks at Barrow Docks from a manufacturer in Belgium. The second and third flasks were delivered to Barrow from Italy in 2014.
Switzerland had signed up as the second largest European customer for Sellafield’s Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) with 422 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel contracted for reprocessing. Now completed, and as a requirement of those contacts under the UK’s waste substitution policy, a total of 104 tonnes of vitrified HLW (in 209 containers) must be returned to Switzerland. Following the upcoming shipment, a further two shipments will be made over the coming years.
Concerns about the use of the ageing Oceanic Pintail for such highly radioactive cargoes have been raised since 2011 following the INS Board decision in 2010 to save the ship from the scrap yard and bring her back into European and Atlantic service under NDA ownership in 2012. Built in 1987 as the Pacific Pintail, the ship had been operated by Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd (PNTL) whose fleet, with that of the NDA, is registered at the port of Barrow-in-Furness. Sailing almost exclusively to Japan under PNTL, she was the first UK merchant ship since the end of the Second World War to be armed with naval canon – a security requirement for the transport of plutonium-based MOX fuel to Japan which she undertook with similarly armed sister ship Pacific Teal. The guns were removed on the ship’s transfer to the NDA.
In saving the ship from the scrap-yard in 2012, INS broke with the company’s tradition of retiring ships of the fleet at or before 25 years of service and described her survival as ‘an interim low-cost measure’ that ‘will present some PR difficulties’. Now at least three years past that traditional sell-by date, the Oceanic Pintail will attempt her maiden HLW voyage. Currently returning to the UK from the US port of Charleston where she delivered German and Swiss research reactor fuel (destined for the Savannah River complex) which had been loaded at the German port of Nordenham. Sailing from Charleston on 18th August, the Oceanic Pintail is due to dock in Barrow on 1st September – leaving relatively little time to prepare for the Swiss HLW return.
A CORE spokesperson said today “Maritime safety is clearly being compromised by the use of an ageing ship that was press- ganged back into service some years ago. By playing fast and loose with such a dangerous cargo INS and NDA are taking pot luck with safety and unnecessarily posing unjustified risks to both the maritime environment and Channel communities”.