'National security for sale': senators' outrage over ship's cargo of nuclear waste

Federal Politics

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'National security for sale': senators' outrage over ship's cargo of nuclear waste

A cargo of nuclear waste that arrived in Australia at the weekend was aboard a ship owned and operated by a web of German companies, registered in the tiny Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda and crewed by a mix of Russian and Ukrainian seafarers.

It brought accusations from an independent Australian Senator that Australia was "tendering out its national security to the lowest common denominator", and followed expressions of disbelief from major party parliamentarians that the bureaucracy did not check the ownership of foreign vessels operating in Australian waters. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) defended the use of the ship, saying it was nuclear-rated and declared fit-for-purpose by both Australian and French nuclear and maritime safety authorities.

The ship, BBC Shanghai, was chartered by the giant French nuclear company, Aveva.

The vessel was met by a flotilla of protestors amid heavy police presence when it docked at Port Kembla on Saturday to deliver Australia's first cargo of radioactive waste to be returned after treatment overseas. The waste will be stored at ANSTO's Lucas Heights facility until the Australian Government chooses a permanent nuclear-waste dump.

Revelations of its complicated web of ownership, its registration in an obscure nation and the make-up of its crew comes two days after Australian Senators from both sides of politics expressed outrage that Australian authorities do not check the ownership of ships plying their trade in Australian waters.

Independent Senator John Madigan said on Sunday he found it unacceptable that a ship carrying radioactive waste could sail into an Australian harbour when little was known about its ownership or crew, and its previous voyages had been to ports in Angola, Egypt, Russia and China, where he said the level of security could not be guaranteed.


"If something went wrong here, everyone would be scattering like rats on a scuttled ship," he said.

Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan was angered on Friday during a parliamentary inquiry into "flags of convenience" vessels when senior officials from the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, which enforces the Coastal Trading Act, confirmed that foreign ships' ownership was not checked.

"Anyone from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to a drug cartel could own these ships?" Senator Heffernan asked.

"I don't care who is in government, I think we're entitled to know who the bloody hell we're dealing with. Jesus, I can't believe that." He called on his own government to immediately change the system that allows foreign-owned and foreign-crewed vessels to be awarded "temporary coastal licences" to carry cargo on Australian routes.

Labor senator Glenn Sterle​ said there should be more checks when cargo can be explosive.

"What if the ship is carrying nitrate up and down the coast?" Greens workplace spokesman, Adam Bandt​,accused the government  on Sunday of "putting local jobs, our marine environment and national security at risk by further deregulating shipping off our coasts." However, the BBC Shanghai is not covered by the Coastal Trading Act because it operates internationally.

The Maritime Union of Australia is fighting proposed changes to the legislation — which were voted down in the Senate two weeks ago — on the grounds that foreign ships operating under flags of convenience and crewed by low-paid foreign seafarers pose potential economic, environmental and national security threats.

Shipping records show the registered owner of the BBC Shanghai is a company called Baltic Sea, the "bareboat owner" is Anger Shipping Co, its group owner is Briese Schiffahrts GmbH​ and Co and it is operated by BBC Chartering and Logistical GmbH. All these entities are based in an office in Leer, Germany, despite the ship operating under the flag of Antigua and Barbuda.

The BBC Shanghai has had a recent name-change — it was identified as the Island Trader the last time it was inspected in Australia by the International Transport Workers Federation in 2014.