Anti-nuclear protesters have set sail from Ireland, with the blessing of the Irish government, to stage a demonstration against ships carrying nuclear fuel to the Sellafield reprocessing plant.
A number of vessels, including the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior, hope to intercept two armed British ships carrying a cargo of nuclear fuel rejected by Japan. Protesters said they would not attempt to board or block the ships, which are due in the Irish Sea within days.
The Irish government strongly objects to the passage of such ships and has sought for many years the closure of Sellafield, which is just 150 miles from Dublin across the Irish Sea. Irish naval ships and planes are to monitor the progress of the two ships, the Pacific Pintail and the Pacific Teal which are carrying five tons of Mox, a potentially weapons-grade mixture of plutonium and uranium. The fuel pellets were rejected by Tokyo after British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) admitted its officials had falsified safety documentation.
BNFL has said the ships will steer clear of Irish coastal waters. Late yesterday the ships, described by Greenpeace as "slow, lightly armoured, and vulnerable to attack", were sailing past the Portuguese island of Madeira.
Dublin has never accepted assurances from BNFL and the British Government that Sellafield and its shipping arrangements are safe. The Irish government has taken international legal action in an attempt to halt a major extension to Sellafield. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – all members of the Ospar convention, a 15-nation environmental treaty set up to protect the North-east Atlantic – support Ireland's efforts to have Sellafield shut down. Nordic countries are alarmed at evidence that marine currents have carried radioactivity from the Irish Sea to some of their most important fishing grounds.
Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, visited Rainbow Warrior earlier this week after it docked in Dublin. He congratulated Greenpeace on its work and said his government would press on with its legal challenge.
The long-held Irish belief that Sellafield represents a serious threat to the environment was greatly heightened after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York a year ago.
The worst scenario for Dublin is that terrorist attacks on Sellafield, or on ships supplying it, could lead to a catastrophic radiation release which could render all or most of Ireland uninhabitable. "If Sellafield were hit by terrorists, then death would be the least we had to fear," Enda Kenny, the Opposition leader, said yesterday on board Rainbow Warrior before it left Dublin.
Irish people were determined "to see that Ireland doesn't become another Belarus, and that our children don't become the new Chernobyl children", he said.
Shaun Birnie, a Greenpeace campaigner, said the protest would gather more anti-nuclear vessels from Wales and Scotland before trying to locate the ships, possibly by Sunday.
He said this would represent "a united voice from all the nations of the Irish Sea that this should be the last plutonium transport by BNFL".
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