In the very early hours of Sunday July 29, the federal government carried out a highly secretive transport of spent nuclear fuel. Helicopters and hundreds of police accompanied trucks from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology's reactor at Lucas Heights to Port Kembla in Wollongong.
The spent fuel was loaded onto the BBC Austria, owned by Briese Schiffahrt, a shipping line condemned across the world for dangerous and illegal practices. The cargo is heading for the La Hague facility in France to be reprocessed, with a contractual agreement for waste generated from this process to be sent back to Australia.
Any transportation of nuclear materials carries risks, but Briese has a particularly terrible safety record, including leaking oil from vessels, losing cargo overboard and failing to follow basic navigation rules. In 2015, French nuclear giant Areva (now Orano) chartered the controversial Briese ship the BBC Shanghai to bring reprocessed spent fuel waste back to Australia. This was despite the ship being recently detained in Australia and Spain, and banned from carrying government cargo in the United States, for failing safety inspections.
The transport occurred during a federal Parliamentary Inquiry into Flag of Convenience ships, where it was revealed that the BBC Shanghai was "owned and operated by a web of German companies, registered in the tiny Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda and crewed by a mix of Russian and Ukrainian seafarers." At the time, independent Senator John Madigan accused the government of "tendering out its national security to the lowest common denominator."
A complex web of ownership and vessel registration allows Briese to circumvent systematic regulation and accountability. Along with safety breaches, vessels have been caught carrying weapons, allegedly intended for war-ravaged nations. Briese is known to have transported Russian and Ukrainian weapons and has an "important functional role" of "heavy weapons shipments to countries with poor infrastructure" as part of the Odessa Network that has allegedly supplied weapons used in Syria. Briese ships have been stopped and crew detained with weapons cargo and tanks "presumably intended" for Sudan and Singapore.
Amnesty International identified a Briese vessel moving cluster bombs between South Korea and Pakistan in 2010, contravening the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. The vessel was not sailing under a German flag, and therefore did not need the permit that would usually be required under German law.
Briese has a terrible track record on workers' rights. In 2015, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) argued that the crew of the BBC Shanghai only signed a binding wage agreement en route to Australia after the radioactive waste shipment attracted public scrutiny. International Transport Federation National Coordinator Dean Summers inspected a sister ship at Port Kembla and found the crew was underpaid and working under a "sham" collective agreement.
The MUA has a long held policy of opposition to all aspects of the nuclear industry. The position recognises that handling and transport of radioactive materials is a risk to stevedores, seafarers and other transport and emergency workers. It also expresses support for Traditional Owners and community members resisting imposition of nuclear projects.
When the BBC Shanghai docked in 2015, MUA Southern NSW Branch Secretary Garry Keane reiterated: "Our members do not support the nuclear industry. There is no totally safe way to transport or store waste which remains a danger and threatens communities for thousands of years."
The reprocessing waste that returned to Australia was categorised as long-lived intermediate level waste (ILW). The intention was for it to be stored at a purpose built national radioactive waste facility, along with other low and intermediate level waste that would be transported from around the country. However, the attempts of successive federal government to construct such a facility have been thwarted by persistent community campaigns and legal actions. Nominated sites in South Australia (1998-2004) and the Northern Territory (2005-2014) were dropped by the federal government after years of hard fought campaigning.
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