Shipping bottlenecks may halt nuclear renaissance

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

LONDON, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Nuclear power -- back in favour in some circles on concerns over global warming -- may face supply problems as worries over the safety of radioactive material limit its movement around the globe.

After decades of plant closures amid opposition from the anti-nuclear lobby, many governments are now planning to build new reactors to try to cut dependence on oil and coal which put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

However, the nuclear industry relies on ships to get its uranium fuel around the globe and shipping companies and ports face tight regulations over the handling of radioactive goods.
"It is a very complex problem," said Bernard Monot, external relations vice president at the logistics department of the world's biggest maker of nuclear reactors, Areva.

"The shippers complain about the port authorities, who in turn hold the shipping lines responsible and everybody accuses heavy regulations," Monot told Reuters.

Shipping of uranium is complicated and the World Nuclear Transport Institute (WNTI), a grouping of 42 firms committed to ensure safe transport, is trying to find a solution as demand for radioactive material increases.

"It will move in increasing volume internationally as demand grows -- not only in the fuel cycle sector -- but in medical applications as well," WNTI secretary general Lorne Green said.

A total of 439 reactors are now operating around the globe, with 34 more under construction and 93 ordered or planned. An additional 222 reactors are being proposed, according to data from mid-January on the World Nuclear Association's website.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has set up a steering committee on Denial of Shipments to try to solve a future bottleneck in the nuclear industry.

"We are very aware that with the renaissance of the nuclear industry, there are going to be more shipments of nuclear material," said Mike Wangler, IAEA Unit Head of the Safety of Transport of Radioactive Materials Unit.

Nuclear power supplies 16 percent of the world's electricity and 16 countries use it for at least a quarter of their electricity.

Nuclear fuel cycle facilities are located in various parts of the world and most of the material used in nuclear fuel is transported several times during the cycle.

"To get the nuclear fuel from the fabricator to a country which is difficult to be reached has become pretty difficult, time consuming and costly," a European uranium trader said.

About 20 million packages of all sizes containing radioactive materials are transported around the world annually on public road, railways and ships, but fewer and fewer transporters want to deal with the burdensome materials.

"The problem that we have is that in many of the ports that we use as a hub we cannot tranship or transit radioactive cargo," said John Leach, General Manager for Dangerous Cargo, Special Cargo Management at Moeller Maersk.

Moeller Maersk, the world's largest container shipping line measured on vessel capacity, adopted a policy of not shipping radioactive materials in April 2007.

"We would be only able to accept about 5 percent of offered radioactive shipments because of the port restriction," Leach said, calling for the material to be treated on an equal basis to other dangerous goods such as explosives.

In most countries the national environmental authorities are in charge of the regulatory system for radioactive materials, said managing director Fer van de Laar of The International Association of Ports and Harbours.

"Additionally in bodies where international transport regulations are made, national transport authorities are in charge not the ports," he said.

The situation differs around the world with some countries having a very limited number of accessible ports. Europe's largest port, Rotterdam, handles radioactive material about once a month, but each shipping company has to obtain a special permit, spokesman Tie Schellekens said.

SenterNovem is the agency handling permits on behalf of the Dutch Department of Spatial Planning, Housing and Environment. "It takes around six weeks to receive a permit," SenterNovem's spokesman Pyter Hiemstra said, adding that the permit could be used for several scheduled deliveries.

He said the IAEA had asked countries to oversee the rules to facilitate the transportation of radioactive materials.

Moeller Maersk's Leach said: "What we would be looking for is for radioactive to be accepted for transit permission normally with 24 to 48 hours notice."

(Reporting by Anna Stablum; editing by Chris Johnson)

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