Gareth Hughes: What if the Rena carried uranium?

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Ships coming from Adelaide dock in the Port of Tauranga roughly every fortnight each carrying up to 750 tonnes of toxic uranium yellowcake.
Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
Ships coming from Adelaide dock in the Port of Tauranga roughly every fortnight each carrying up to 750 tonnes of toxic uranium yellowcake. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

The ecological disaster of the Rena grounding could perhaps have been even worse if the Rena had been one of the ships that carry uranium oxide concentrate, or yellowcake, through Tauranga Port.

Roughly every fortnight, ships coming from Adelaide dock in the Port of Tauranga each carrying up to 750 tonnes of uranium yellowcake on between six and 30 containers.

The radioactive uranium yellowcake, which is actually more of a toxic hazard than a radiation hazard, never leaves the vessel and is stored in containers to be shipped on to the United States. Despite this, what is of real concern is the lack of safeguards and inadequate equipment and training New Zealand response teams have to address a radioactive spill should it occur.

As a proudly nuclear-free nation, the fact that we are active participants in the international uranium trade should send alarm bells ringing in itself.

But even worse is that we sell ourselves to the world on being nuclear-free - it's the cherry on the 100% Pure New Zealand cake. The Rena spill has already smeared this image. Imagine the international news headlines if it was in fact uranium yellowcake that had leaked from the ship into the Bay of Plenty? Our experts are even now still struggling to address it. How would they respond in the event of a radioactive spill - if yellowcake uranium were to spill into the water or port? We are simply not equipped to deal with such an event.

Supporters of nuclear power and the shipment of hazardous goods in our waters often cast aside safety concerns, claiming that accidents are very rare and extremely unlikely. But we are seeing first hand a result of this "she'll be right'' attitude as the Rena continues to cough up oil onto the beaches of the East Coast and is on the verge of splitting. Even if the risks are low, accidents still happen. We can introduce better regulation for coastal shipping that supports the use of local crews and ships that know New Zealand waters and hazards to minimise risks. Furthermore, we can invest in our emergency maritime services so that they have the capacity and resources to respond quickly if accidents do happen.

In the case of the yellowcake, documents released under the Official Information Act show that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the contingency plans if something goes wrong. While the shipments have been authorised by the Environmental Risk Management Authority, they transhipped between 1996 and 2009 without any approvals from the authority.

The safety procedures appear sketchy at best regarding who is responsible and what is to be done in the event of a radioactive spill.

Western Bay of Plenty Harbour Master Jennifer Roberts stated in a 2010 submission to Government that neither the Tauranga Fire Service, nor Port of Tauranga staff, had the equipment and training to detect and deal with a uranium yellowcake spill.

While the uranium yellowcake in question is relatively benign it does pose a health risk if consumed - a possibility if it were to leak into the ocean from one of the containers as we saw with the ferrosilicon off the Rena.

This will then go on to affect the sea life that local fishermen make a living out of and then sell on for us to eat, or else it drifts onto the beaches along with the tonnes of oil that's been having such a drastic impact on locals and wildlife.

The Rena spill has highlighted the importance of proper safety precautions, adequate training and quick response that are required if accidents are to avoid becoming disasters.

A lapse in maintaining safety standards may seem like a small, forgivable act, but the reality is that we are never prepared for the big accidents until they happen, and when they do happen, they cost our country, our reputation, our economy and our environment.

We can introduce better regulation for coastal shipping that supports the use of local crews and ships that know New Zealand waters and hazards to minimise risks. Furthermore, we can invest in our emergency maritime services so that they have the capacity and resources to respond quickly if accidents do happen.

We should stop allowing our ports to be used to ship yellowcake but failing that then we owe it at least to the people of New Zealand to be certain that we know exactly what to do and who to call in the event of an emergency.

The Rena can be the catalyst to reviewing this controversial practice and our response plans if accidents do happen.

* Gareth Hughes is a Green Party MP and Oceans spokesman

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