Responsibility overboard: The shocking record of the company shipping nuclear waste to Australia

August 15, 2018
The spent nuclear fuel was loaded onto the BBC Austria, owned by Briese Schiffahrt, a shipping line condemned across the world for dangerous and illegal practices.

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 New South Wales.  

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 BBC Shanghai to bring reprocessed spent fuel waste back to Australia. This was despite the ship having recently been 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, which 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, which has allegedly supplied weapons used in Syria. Briese ships have been stopped and crews detained carrying weapons cargo and tanks “presumably intended” for Sudan and Singapore, reported Russia & CIS Military Weekly in 2010.

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.

Workers’ rights

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 signed a binding wage agreement en route to Australia only after the radioactive waste shipment attracted public scrutiny. International Transport Federation National Coordinator Dean Summers inspected a sister ship at Port Kembla and found that the crew was being 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 transporting 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 the 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.”

Community opposition

The reprocessing waste that was returned to Australia was categorised as long-lived intermediate level waste (ILW). The intention was to store it 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 governments 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.

Significant government resources are currently being thrown at advancing the assessment of three shortlisted sites in SA, one on Adnyamathanha Country in the Flinders Ranges and two in the Kimba region of the Eyre Peninsula. The SA waste dump plan has caused great anxiety and stress for Traditional Owners and local community members near the sites.

Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner Regina McKenzie describes the Flinders Ranges as “arngurla yarta” (spiritual land). Upon receiving the 2016 Peter Rawlinson environment award, McKenzie said: “The proposed dumpsite contains thousands of Aboriginal artefacts. Our ancestors are buried there. We don’t want a nuclear waste dump here on our country and worry that if the waste comes here it will harm our environment and muda (our lore, creation).”

Communities ‒ including many of McKenzie’s extended family ‒ have campaigned for decades to stop uranium mining and nuclear waste dumps, and for compensation for people affected by nuclear tests conducted in the 1950s and 1960s.

The nuclear chain is toxic from start to finish. As we move, albeit slowly, towards the creation of long-term, sustainable and safe jobs in renewable industries there will be an ongoing need ‒ for many generations ‒ to manage the radioactive materials already stockpiled around the world.

Instead of continuing with plans to greatly expand the production and export of radioactive medical isotopes from Lucas Heights, the federal government should start planning to replace the reactor with more benign technologies for scientific and medical applications.

A recent conveyor belt breakdown and two spills of radioactive material that affected workers in the past year highlight the risks and vulnerabilities inherent in this industry.

Environment groups, trade unions and health organisations have long called for an independent inquiry into the production, transport and management of radioactive waste in Australia that includes all key stakeholders. This is essential to take the discussion around intergenerational management out of the trenches and to the table.

Arthur Rorris from the South Coast Labour Council summarised it well in 2015: “When a shipment of solar panels comes through the port you don’t see hundreds of cops blocking highways and a national security operation. Communities the world over want to see the back of the nuclear industry so we don’t have to endure these unnecessary risks to public health, the environment and our national security.”

[Natalie Wasley is a maritime industry worker and nuclear free campaigner. First published on Online Opinion.]

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