Environmentalists fear chemical leak from stranded ship


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - 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 yesterday.

Environmentalists said yesterday that the stranded Sealand Express poses no great environmental risk at the moment but were concerned that the ship's cargo had not yet been fully disclosed and that a cold front expected to move in today could bring new storms that might cause breaches in the vessel.

"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 yesterday.

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. Yesterday, 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 yesterday. The vessel is grounded in Table Bay about 500 feet off Sunset Beach in Milnerton.

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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