Published on Saturday, August 23, 2003 by the Chicago Tribune
Cargo Ship Leaking Chemical Off S. Africa Also Carrying Uranium
by Laurie Goering
JOHANNESBURG -- A U.S.-flagged cargo ship blown aground off Cape Town this week is carrying 56 tons of unprocessed uranium bound for the United States and is leaking a flammable chemical, industry officials admitted Friday.
"The concern, under these conditions, is what happens if the other containers start leaking," said David Chown, a spokesman for Earthlife, a South African environmental group. "The port authority initially said there were no hazardous materials, then we started getting other information. Now we need a full disclosure of what is on the ship."
The Sealand Express, which ran aground Tuesday in stormy seas near Cape Town, is carrying 5,000 tons of crude oil, containers of industrial chemicals, including leaking propyl acetate, and 59 sealed drums of uranium oxide, a byproduct of gold mining and the raw material for nuclear fuel rods, port and industry officials said Friday.
A spokesman for AngloGold, whose subsidiary Nufcor exports a thousand tons of uranium oxide from South Africa each year, said the uranium shipment was low in toxicity and radiation and would simply disperse in the sea if the ship foundered and the drums somehow opened.
"It represents a low ecological threat ... because of its very low radiation," said Steve Lenahan, the spokesman. "We're not concerned it poses a substantial threat."
But environmentalists said the ship's grounding, on a sandbank near shore, shows the risks of nuclear cargo passing through the sometimes treacherous waters off Africa's gusty southern cape. At least two ships a year run aground in the area, they said, and cargo ships of much more highly radioactive waste--spent nuclear fuel traveling from Europe to Japan for disposal--regularly pass south of Cape Town.
"People say there's no problem with that, but there's always a chance something is going to happen," Chown said. "This is exactly a case in point. If that [European material] went into the water we'd be in serious trouble."
Activists also worry that oil carried aboard the Sealand Express could leak into the sea if the ship, which appears firmly lodged on a sandbar, founders. On Friday, workers taking advantage of calm seas began pumping the vessel's load of fuel to shore, in an effort to refloat the ship. The process could take days and would probably be stopped if storms picked up again, experts said.
Previous efforts to tug the ship back out to sea have failed, which suggests its cargo may need to be taken off, analysts said Friday. The vessel is grounded in Table Bay about 500 feet off Sunset Beach in Milnerton.
U.S. officials in South Africa said the stranded uranium oxide shipment, loaded in Cape Town, was headed to a uranium processing plant in Newport News, Va. U.S. Coast Guard officials have arrived in South Africa to consult on the ship rescue effort, U.S. Embassy officials said.
The uranium shipment was being made in accordance with international atomic energy regulations and with local mining and energy rules, Lenahan said.
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