Plutonium threat to southern Africa

Issue 

Plutonium threat to southern Africa

By Norm Dixon

According to environmentalists in southern Africa, a tanker carrying deadly plutonium may have travelled from France and England to Japan via the Cape of Good Hope on a "trial run" to test the viability of the route for regular shipments. Japan is awaiting what is described by the South African Weekly Mail newspaper as a "vast cargo" of plutonium.

The environmental organisation Earthlife Africa met with Greenpeace in Europe earlier this year to enlist help in thwarting the plans to transport the dangerous cargo near the southern African coast. Earthlife Africa is particularly concerned about the proposed frequency of the shipments should they be approved. It is estimated that at least one shipment every two months would round the cape.

Plutonium is considered the most toxic substance known. It is also a key component for making nuclear weapons, with one tonne being sufficient to make 30 Hiroshima-size bombs. It remains lethally radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

A fragment of plutonium smaller than a speck of dust can cause cancer if ingested. The form in which the material is to be transported is especially dangerous. It is in the form of plutonium oxide particles, which are easily inhaled and can be concentrated through the food chain.

Fears have intensified in the region following the Katina-P oil tanker disaster off the coast of Mozambique in April. The Greek tanker hit high seas and was grounded on a sand bar 52 kilometres north of Maputo Bay on April 17. Nine days later it exploded and sank while being towed out to sea. At least 9000 tonnes of heavy oil has begun to foul Maputo Bay.

The oil slick threatens Mozambique's already fragile economy. Mozambique's marine and coastal ecosystems contain some of the world's most beautiful coral reefs and rare sea life. Prawns account for 40% of the country's export earnings.

The Mozambique government banned fishing in Maputo Bay and halted harvesting of sea cucumbers and shellfish. This has hit Maputo hard: fishing is one of the city's main sources of employment. For hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who live along the coast, seafood is the primary source of food.

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