Panama or Cape, the cargo’s still lethal

A major campaign against a voyage around the Cape of a ship ferrying a lethal cargo of plutonium gained momentum this week when the Wildlife Society of Southern African demanded details of the arrangement from the minister of environmental affairs. "We are waiting for a reply before we decide what to do next," said executive director Tony Ferrar, who said the society had expressed its concern to the minister.

A Japanese ship containing one ton of plutonium – enough to kill South Africa's entire population – is scheduled to leave the French port of Cherbourg next month for Tokyo. It will be carrying the first of a series of 40 shipments intended for Japan, which intends to stockpile 85 to 100 tons of the radioactive element during the next 18 years for a nuclear energy programme. This is more plutonium than is contained in the entire United States nuclear arsenal.

So concerned are the US authorities about the danger of such deadly cargo that the House of Representatives recently voted almost unanimously to ban these ships from all US-controlled waters, even in the event of an emergency. The American move has been the latest to focus international concerns about security risks and inadequate safety precautions. Japan is relying on a cat and mouse uncertainty in an attempt to stifle organised opposition. The route has not been published, and there is no official confirmation that the Cape will be part of it.

But Greenpeace sources claim that Pretoria has given the nod to the Japanese and the cargo will be sailing around the Cape. "The Panama Canal (a possible alternate) is a no-go area. George Bush can't afford to arouse political opposition in central America on the eve of presidential elections,'' says Greenpeace spokesman Damon Moglen. "Our intelligence sources inform us that the shipment is coming your way." "Not so," says J Metcalfe, safety standards manager for South Africa's Council for Nuclear Safety. "We have been in close contact with British Nuclear Fuels who are taking ultimate responsibility for these shipments. They assured us that they intend using the Panama Canal."

Opponents of the project claim the South African government, presently faced with crippling national recession, could be influenced by the cost benefit of the deal and find it worthwhile despite the risks. Metcalfe claims South Africans have as much risk of being bitten by a snake or eaten by a shark as they have of witnessing a shipping incident involving the Japanese plutonium along our coastline. He says risk-assessment calculations have provided the government with the assurance that these ships could dock in South African harbours if need be.

"No matter what the route, the fact of the matter is that the De Klerk government is prepared to endanger the sub-continent and its people in return for short-term economic favour. We do not accept that they have the right to put such a price on our heads," says Earthlife Africa Representative Chris Albertyn.

Wits university sociology professor Jaclyn Cock, speaking on behalf of the Group for Environmental Monitoring, is not comforted. "Not only is the government incapable and/or unwilling to protect the lives of the township residents," she says. "They are now prepared to disregard the safety of the entire sub-continent."

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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