27-10-03 Protests as Australia ships nuclear waste to France
Amid protests and under cover of darkness, Australia dispatched a load of used nuclear fuel to France early Monday in the first overseas shipment of Australian radioactive waste in two years.
A convoy of five trucks carrying 344 spent nuclear fuel rods crossed suburban Sydney under heavy police guard before dawn and loaded the waste aboard the French ship Fret Moselle, which quickly departed, officials said.
It was the first shipment of waste from Sydney's Lucas Heights nuclear reactor to reprocessing centers in France since January 2001.
Activists from the environmental group Greenpeace circled the Fret Moselle in inflatable boats to protest the shipment, but did not attempt to block the vessel, a spokesman for the group said.
"It was a bizarre event to be unfolding while most of Sydney slept," said Danny Kennedy.
"There were five large trucks with containers on the back of them, each of them containing caskets that hold the spent fuel rods from Lucas Heights," he said.
The convoy was protected by police and emergency vehicles, motorcycles and helicopters in a major security operation "probably bigger than anything Sydney's ever seen," Kennedy said.
The Fret Moselle left port shortly before dawn and Greenpeace said it was likely to spark further protests en route to France either through the Pacific or via the Indian Ocean.
Cogema, the French company taking delivery of the rods, said the shipment was expected to arrive at a reprocessing center in the French Atlantic town of La Hague in the first week of December.
Lucas Heights is Australia's only nuclear reactor and the government decided in 1997 to ship spent fuel rods from the research facility overseas for reprocessing by Cogema.
Under Australia's contract with Cogema, the French firm is to extract and retain enriched uranium and send intermediate-level radioactive waste back to Australia for long-term storage.
Greenpeace said due to technical problems in France, none of the spent fuel sent by Australia since 1997 has yet been reprocessed and Australian authorities have yet to develop a site to store returned waste.
The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO), which manages Lucas Heights, said all necessary precautions had been taken to ensure the safety of Monday's shipment.
"This fuel that was transported had been in store waiting for transport for some time," said the organizations' executive director, Ron Cameron.
"The average age of that fuel was about 25 years old, so it's really quite old fuel," he said. "There is no risk to the Australian public."
In a statement, ANSTO said that the route of the Fret Moselle would not be published "in accordance with Australia's obligations under international conventions for the protection of the public and the safeguarding of nuclear materials."
Kennedy said there was unprecedented security surrounding the nuclear waste convoy and Port Botany, where the Fret Moselle docked just after midnight.
"There were 10 police launches protecting the vessel, including fast inflatable vessels with guys in black helmets and night-vision goggles ... racing around the water," he said.
"It is an obscene abuse of the public purse," he said.