British Nuclear Fuels plans to send up to eight annual shipments of radioactive material through the Irish Sea in coming years, despite opposition to its international cargoes voiced by 80 countries.
After a locomotive finally nudged a five-ton consignment of rejected plutonium into a shed at BNFL's Sellafield plant after a humiliating voyage back from Japan, the company's chief executive, Norman Askew, said advance orders for the reprocessed nuclear fuel accounted for 40 per cent of capacity at the new Mox reprocessing plant.
The first delivery will go to Switzerland by the middle of next year. Germany, Belgium and France are believed to be ready to take more.
The safety concerns of Greenpeace, echoed by politicians and environmentalists in Ireland, could not be dismissed as "rubbish" but did not take account of the firm's 30-year record, Mr Askew said. "We've got to deal with facts."
At 5.02pm yesterday, the diesel locomotive pushed the rejected plutonium into shed 3532 at Sellafield and the grey corrugated metal doors were slammed shut.
BNFL insisted the return of the single cylindrical flask – carrying five padlocks and bearing the words: To BNFL plc Sellafield, from Kansai Electric Co, Takahama – enabled it to draw a line under the "stupidity" of falsifying safety data at the British nuclear facility.
But to the very end, the transport of the material – enough to make five nuclear bombs, according to Greenpeace – highlighted the opposition from 80 countries on four continents.
The last of many peaceful protests greeted the cargo when its carrier, the Pacific Pintail, finally nudged around the Piel Island spit, east of Barrow-in-Furness docks, at 8.19am yesterday. The deck was patrolled by eight guards in balaclavas and body armour, carrying machine pistols – an indication of the dangers accompanying its transit.
The ship lumbered alongside the myriad small vessels that swarmed around it – an accompanying harbourmaster's boat, four police dinghies and the flotilla of four protest boats, led by the Welsh Swn y Mor, which got close enough to the Pintail to make a police craft intervene.
The Barrow-registered Pintail docked in the town's locks, two miles away, and was then nudged into a delicate 180-degree rotation alongside the train, which conveyed it two hours north, up Cumbria's west coast to Sellafield.
It was a tense afternoon. Police guarded every road bridge and crossing as it began the last leg of the journey.
To the concern of Greenpeace, Pintail's escort ship Teal, which had travelled to the defence of the consignment, did not see it into its home port, waiting out at sea before its own expected Barrow docking last night.
All day, BNFL endeavoured to make the best of what was – in PR terms – a bad job. First, it delivered the Falklands war veteran Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, who is putting forward BNFL's safety case in return for a contribution to his Falklands Memorial Chapel Appeal.
He said the thickness of the carrier vessel's two hulls meant that an attack similar to that by al-Qa'ida activists on the USS Cole, which killed 12 people off Yemen two years ago, would not have dislodged the fuel.
"You've got to put a bloody great bomb under that ship to make anything come out of it," Admiral Woodward said.
Then bacon sandwiches, sushi and chocolate-covered apricots were among the delicacies laid on at BNFL's Barrow media facility. But this operation was precarious. The press tea urn exploded and relations with Greenpeace were further strained when the environmental group was refused entrance to the facility to put its side of the story.
"Sushi?" muttered one senior Greenpeace campaigner. "That's the last thing they'll be getting from Japan."
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