Japanese Waste and MOX Shipments from Europe - Appendix 1

From BNFL Media Brief 4 December 1996, "Shipments of Nuclear Materials Between Europe and Japan"

The companies responsible for the shipments are well-established and well-regarded organizations. The ten Japanese electrical power companies are represented by the Overseas Reprocessing Committee (ORC). BNFLa  and COGEMAb are, respectively, the operators of the British and French reprocessing facilities. All of these organizations have a history of complying fully with the national and international regulations which govern their activities.


The ships on which the nuclear material is transported have a range of safety features far in excess of those found on conventional cargo vessels:

  • Double hulls to withstand collision damage
  • Enhanced buoyancy to prevent the ship from sinking even in extreme circumstances
  • Dual navigation, communications, cargo monitoring and cooling systems
  • Satellite navigation and tracking
  • Twin engines and propellers
  • Additional fire fighting equipment, including a hold flooding system

The ships are owned by a subsidiary company called Pacific Nuclear Transport Limited (PNTL), which is owned by BNFL (62.5%), Cogema (12.5%) and the Japanese utilities (25%).c  PNTL is the most experienced company in the world for the sea transport of radioactive nuclear materials with a proven ability over more than 20 yearsd.  The ships have a safety record second to none, having covered more than five million kilometrese  without a single incident resulting in the release of radioactivity. Over 4,000 flasksf  (see below) have been safely transported since the mid-1960s in over 150 shipments.g 

The ships currently in use were built in the 1980s and undergo regular maintenance inspections and their equipment is regularly checked.h  They have a fully trained and experienced British crew and, while at sea, maintain a permanent communications link with a report center which is manned 24 hours a day.

The ships meet the highest safety rating of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations agency, which regularly reviews its regulations. It means that they are amongst the safest ships on the seas. Ships of the same design transport the same type of material within Europe and between ports in Japan.


Nuclear material is also safely transported extensively within Japan, Europe and elsewhere throughout the world, often involving different modes of transport at different stages of a journey. For this reason safety is provided by the transport packages, known as casks or flasks, which comply with rigorous international standards - the purpose-built ships therefore provide an extra layer of safety on top of these standards.

Similar casks have been safely transported in the UK, France and Japan for over 30 years. They are specially designed for the particular radioactive material they carry, give protection to workers and the public against radiation and are designed to withstand the most serious accidents. The casks are massive steel structures made from 250mm thick forged steel and weigh around 100 tonnes. In the case of spent fuel, each cask typically contains up to eight tonnes of fuel. With vitrified waste, each cask contains 20 or 28 stainless steel canisters which, in turn, contain the solid vitrified glass waste. Each full canister weighs around 500 kg.

The casks are built to standards set down by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) another United Nations organization. The regulations which they have established have been agreed by international experts representing 124 member countries of the IAEA. Under these regulations the cask design has successfully met a series of rigorous fire, impact and immersion criteria.

Vitrification conditions the waste into a solid glass form and the highly radioactive nuclear materials, such as caesium, are incorporated in, and form part of, the matrix of solid glass. Even in a scenario of the glass becoming directly exposed to the sea, the leach rate of this special material in water is extremely low. Independent nuclear experts around the world believe vitrification is the safest and most secure method for treating, transporting and storing highly radioactive waste.

The protection provided by the glass, the cask and the ship ensure that even in very severe accident scenarios the radioactive contents of the waste could not be released into the atmosphere.

Emergency Arrangements:

There are hazards in any marine activity and, whilst the safety arrangements are exceptionally good, detailed and well-rehearsed emergency response arrangements also exist. These range from voyage tracking, sonar location devices, radiation monitoring equipment and a worldwide salvage capability, to an emergency team of industry specialists on 24 hour worldwide standby.

An advantage with transporting this type of material is that the emergency arrangements do not rely on specialist assistance being available from countries adjacent to the route. There is therefore no special need for emergency plans to be coordinated with other countries in advance.

The material is in a solid form and is characterized by long term stability and low solubility in water so there is no prospect of a 'radioactive slick' or of an atmospheric release. Even in an extreme scenario, where the material is somehow exposed to sea water, studies have demonstrated that any extra radiation dose to local communities would be tiny - a fraction of natural background radiation. The hazard posed by these shipments is therefore very small.

In the unlikely event of a ship getting into difficulty, a fully trained and equipped team of nuclear experts are available on a 24-hour emergency standby system, in line with IAEA requirements. In the event of a serious fire or collision, this team would be dispatched to the ship and would direct and manage all remedial operations. The ship would not necessarily head towards the nearest port to seek assistance. Comprehensive salvage arrangements have been drawn up for both the ship and cargo, which could be initiated immediately.


Since this type of shipment began nearly 30 years ago, routes have been taken through the Panama Canal, around Cape Horn and around the Cape of Good Hope. This information is public and has been for many years. Each voyage typically takes six to eight weeks to complete and the ships are capable of completing each voyage without having to stop at any port en route.

As with other merchant vessels, the ship's journey is governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This allows ships the right of innocent passage and freedom of navigation even within territorial waters (12 miles from a country's coastline).

Under the same law, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) have been established by some states for the exploitation of mineral rights and other economic activities, up to 200 miles from their coastline.

However, it is internationally recognized that there shall be no suspension of the innocent passage of foreign ships within either limit. Under the international Law of the Sea, ships "have the right of unimpeded passage so long as it is continuous and expeditious."

Related information pages

Japanese Waste and MOX Shipments from Europe


a. UK reprocessing facilities are currently operated by Sellafield Ltd (www.sellafieldsites.com). [Back]
b. In March 2006 Cogema was rebranded as Areva NC (www.areva-nc.com). [Back]
c. PNTL is currently owned by: International Nuclear Services (62.5%), which is 100% owned by the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (see www.innuserv.com); TN International (12.5%), a subsidiary of Areva (see www.tninternational.areva-nc.com); and the Overseas Reprocessing Committee (25%), an organisation belonging to the Federation of Electric Power Companies, which manages the reprocessing and transport contracts on behalf of the 10 Japanese utilities that operate nuclear power plants. The PNTL website is at www.pntl.co.uk. [Back]
d. To date, PNTL has completed over 170 nuclear shipments over the last 30 years. [Back]
e. The fleet has now covered over 8 million kilometres. [Back]
f. To, date over 5,000 casks have been transported. [Back]
g. To date, PNTL has completed over 170 nuclear shipments over the last 30 years. [Back]
h. Constructed by Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding Co Ltd, the Pacific Heron was brought into service in 2008 and is the first of three new INF 3 purpose-built ships for PNTL. Other ships in the PNTL fleet are: the Pacific Swan (1979), Pacific Crane (1980), Pacific Teal (1982), Pacific Sandpiper (1985) and Pacific Pintail (1987). The Pacific Swan, Pacific Crane and Pacific Teal have have been retired from service. [Back]

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