On 4 July two ships left Japan carrying MOX fuel to be returned to BNFL’s Sellafield site in the United Kingdom. The eight fuel assemblies are being returned from Kansai Electric Power’s Takahama plant in Japan, as part of an agreement with BNFL following the discovery of falsified quality assurance data relating to the assemblies in 1999. The journey back to the UK takes the ships — the Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal – via the Southwest Pacific and around the Cape of Good Hope.

The fuel assemblies are unirradiated and have been stored at the spent fuel pool at Takahama for the past three years. They are being transported in Excellox 4 MOX transport casks. Once the fuel has been returned, BNFL intends to recover the fissile material from the fuel and to subsequently use that material in the manufacture of new fuel.

The shipment has sparked widespread protest, with the leaders of the 78 nations represented at the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific Summit calling for an immediate end to shipments of nuclear fuel. Also, the Irish government is trying to drum up international support against the “unacceptable risk to the environment of Ireland and the health and economic well-being of its population,” according to environment minister Martin Cullen. The ships will pass through the Irish Sea at the end of their six-week voyage.

And, predictably, Greenpeace has been doing its best to disrupt the shipments. Under cover of darkness, the Pintail and Teal had to slip through a Greenpeace blockade of 11 protest craft in the Tasman Sea. Once through, a Greenpeace inflatable boat then embarked on an eight-hour chase. The two protesters on board then jumped into the sea in front of the ships and held up a banner that read: “Nuclear Free Pacific”. One of the protestors, Ian Cohen, is a member of the upper house of the New South Wales State parliament in Australia.