Back in Britain: the nuclear waste rejected by the rest of the world

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After a journey of 1,156 days across 18,000 miles in the face of opposition from 80 nations, one of the most controversial ocean-going cargoes to pass through British waters will slip into a modest dockside berth at Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria today.

After a journey of 1,156 days across 18,000 miles in the face of opposition from 80 nations, one of the most controversial ocean-going cargoes to pass through British waters will slip into a modest dockside berth at Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria today.

But the angry protests that have dogged every stage of its progress continued across the Irish Sea yesterday and will be there until the last moments of its long journey back to Britain.

The five tons of plutonium and uranium mixed oxide (Mox) is a cargo that no one wants. Japan, to where it was shipped from British Nuclear Fuel's (BNFL) Sellafield installation, ordered it to be sent back amid evidence, revealed by The Independent three years ago, that safety records at the nuclear facility had been falsified.

Since then, the cargo has become a pariah of the high seas, containing enough plutonium to make 50 bombs, environmentalists claim. From the Pacific's Tasman Sea to the Indian Ocean it has met protesting flotillas. The latest was waiting in a watery sunshine and gentle breeze off the Pembrokeshire coast at 10.30 yesterday morning.

Greenpeace's indefatigable protest vessel Rainbow Warrior followed the cargo's two carriers, Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal, which were 40 miles ahead between Fishguard and Co Wexford. It tracked them for five hours through the Irish Sea to where an accompanying flotilla of 12 sailing boats was waiting.

Flags carrying the Greenpeace and Irish "Nuclear Sea-Nuclear Free" flotilla symbols were hoisted by the boats, skippered and crewed by amateur environmentalists. A pirate radio station was then broadcast on a 40-mile radius FM band, delivering discussion on the topic of radioactive waste and music of the high-profile rock stars who have campaigned against the shipment, Bono from U2 and Jim Corr of the Corrs.

The cargo ships, escorted by the Royal Navy and an RAF Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft, manoeuvredto avoid coming too near the flotilla, firing water cannon as they sailed on, with anti-terrorist police visible on deck. But the flotilla made its point, securing a position just 20 metres from the cargo. "The security arrangements are not a joke but they are certainly not credible," a Greenpeace co-ordinator, Shaun Burnie, said from his vantage point on Rainbow Warrior.

"This event has highlighted the kind of Irish Sea traffic which all nations are sick of. The Independent is largely responsible for why we are here. The flotilla boats together represent the views of countries around the world who are saying this trade in nuclear bomb material has to stop before a disaster happens."

BNFL insists the cargo, with its armed guard, is safe, though the company's marine transport head, Malcolm Miller, said: "We recognise that individuals and groups have the right to peacefully and lawfully protest about our activities."

The cargo has now journeyed on towards Barrow, for removal by crane to the train, which will follow a dedicated track out of the dock before picking up a main line north to Sellafield, where the rods' plutonium radioactive waste will be separated from the remaining unused uranium.

Another flotilla of four boats, which separated from the main group on Sunday, is moored in a position off Roa Island near the town, where it will make a similar protest early today as the cargo sweeps past, 30 minutes before finally docking. The people of Barrow have lived with the nuclear force for decades. The town's shipyards have produced all but two of Britain's nuclear submarines, and there is an air of bewilderment at the controversy accompanying its arrival. "We know enough about nuclear to know the difference between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy," one hotelier said yesterday.

The main concern in the town seems to be the cost of containing a protest. Four members of an Irish environmental group were charged with public order offences yesterday after they chained themselves together on the roof of the Sellafield visitors' centre in Cumbria on Saturday.

Local hotels are full of police officers who are there to contain any protest, but the local council has already announced that the costs of dealing with this summer's legionnaires' disease outbreak, which has killed at least five people, may be passed on to taxpayers.

"Fingers Crossed", read the Barrow Evening Mail banner headline, an indication that here, at least, nuclear apocalypse is the last thing on people's minds.

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