Armed Ships Embark on Secretive Plutonium Mission From Japan to the U.S.
Two armed ships set off from the northwest of England this week to sail round the world to Japan on a secretive and controversial mission to collect a consignment of plutonium and transport it to the U.S.
The cargo of plutonium, once the most sought-after and valuable substance in the world, is one of a number of ever-growing stockpiles that are becoming an increasing financial and security embarrassment to the countries that own them.
So far, there is no commercially viable use for this toxic metal and there is increasing fear that plutonium could fall into the hands of terrorists or that governments could be tempted to use it to join the nuclear arms race.
All the plans to use plutonium for peaceful purposes in fast breeder and commercial reactors have so far failed to keep pace with the amounts of this highly-dangerous radioactive metal being produced by the countries that run nuclear power stations.
The small amounts of plutonium that have been used in conventional and fast breeder reactors have produced very little electricity—at startlingly high costs.
Out of Harm’s Way
Japan, with its 47-ton stockpile, is among the countries that once hoped to turn their plutonium into a power source, but various attempts have failed. The government, which has a firm policy of using it only for peaceful purposes, has nonetheless come under pressure to keep it out of harm’s way. Hence, the current plan to ship it to the U.S.
Altogether, 15 countries across the world have stockpiles. They include North Korea, which hopes to turn it into nuclear weapons.
The UK has the largest pile, with 140 tons held at Sellafield in north-west England, where plutonium has been produced at the site’s nuclear power plant since the 1950s. The government has yet to come up with a policy on what to do with it—and, meanwhile, the costs of keeping it under armed guard continue to rise.
Like most countries, the UK cannot decide whether it has an asset or a liability. The plutonium does not appear on any balance sheet and the huge costs of storing it safely—to avoid it going critical and causing a meltdown—and guarding it against terrorists are not shown as a cost of nuclear power.
This enables the industry to claim that nuclear is an attractive and clean energy-producing option to help combat climate change.
The two ships that set off from the English port of Barrow-in-Furness this week are the Pacific Egret and Pacific Heron, nuclear fuel carriers fitted with naval cannon on deck. They are operated by Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd, which ultimately is owned by the British government.
The presence on both ships of a heavily-armed security squad—provided by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary’s Strategic Escort Group—and the earlier loading of stores and the craning on board of live ammunition point to a long, security-conscious voyage ahead.
The shipment of plutonium from Japan to the U.S. falls under the U.S.-led Global Threat Reduction Initiative or Material Management & Minimization program, whereby weapons-useable material such as plutonium and highly-enriched uranium is removed from facilities worldwide for safekeeping in the U.S.
The cargo to be loaded onto the two UK ships in Japan consists of some 331kg of plutonium from Japan’s Tokai Research Establishment.
This plutonium—a substantial fraction of which was supplied to Japan by the UK decades ago for “experimental purposes” in Tokai’s Fast Critical Assembly facility—is described by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as “posing a potential threat to national security, being susceptible to use in an improvised nuclear device and presenting a high risk of theft or diversion.” Or, as another U.S. expert put it, “sufficient to make up to 40 nuclear bombs.”
Under the U.S.-led program, the plutonium will be transported from Japan to the U.S. port of Charleston and onwards to the Savannah River site in South Carolina.
Tom Clements, director of the public interest group Savannah River Site Watch, has condemned this import of plutonium as a material that will simply be stranded at the site, with no clear disposition path out of South Carolina. He sees it as further evidence that Savannah River is being used as a dumping ground for an extensive range of international nuclear waste.
Prime Terrorist Material
The British group Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment has for decades tracked the transport of nuclear materials round the world.
Their spokesman, Martin Forwood, said: “The practice of shipping this plutonium to the U.S. as a safeguard is completely undermined by deliberately exposing this prime terrorist material to a lengthy sea transport, during which it will face everyday maritime risks and targeting by those with hostile intentions.
“We see this as wholly unnecessary and a significant security threat in today’s volatile and unpredictable world.”
The best option, Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment believes, would have been to leave it where it was, under guard.
From DOE documents, this shipment will be the first of a number of planned shipments for what is referred to as “Gap Material Plutonium”—weapons-useable materials that are not covered under other U.S. or Russian programs.
In total, the DOE plans to import up to 900kg of “at risk” plutonium—currently held in seven countries—via 12 shipments over seven years. Other materials include stocks of highly-enriched uranium—the most highly enriched plutonium, (to 93 percent), also being supplied to Japan by the UK.
The voyage from Barrow to Japan takes about six weeks and a further seven weeks from Japan to Savannah River—use of the Panama Canal having been ruled out by the DOE in its documents on the shipment. Previously, the countries near the canal have objected to nuclear transport in their territorial waters.
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theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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