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Pacific Swan

Vessel type Nuclear fuel carrier
Year launched 1979
Cargo type Nuclear material
Country of build United Kingdom

Entering into service in 1979, the 4,257grt Pacific Swan was the first purpose-built British ship to operate the politically-sensitive trade in nuclear materials.

Special design

Built at Swan Hunter’s Hebburn yard, the vessel had been specially designed in collaboration with the Salvage Association and the Japanese Ministry of Transport, following the introduction of the world’s first specialist nuclear fuel carrier, Hinoura Maru, in 1978.

Before Pacific Swan came into service, nuclear waste and other radioactive materials had been carried on specially adapted cargoships, such as James Fisher’s Leven Fisher, Pool Fisher and Stream Fisher.

Recognising the potential safety and environmental risks posed by such shipments, and in response to concerns raised by its fishing industry, Japan had drawn up design criteria for vessels transporting radioactive cargoes.

These rules – covering such points as structural strength, collision protection, damage stability, cargo monitoring, cooling systems, fire-fighting and emergency equipment – were closely followed in the construction of Pacific Swan.

The build

Built for Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd (PNTL), with the core role of shipping irradiated fuel from Japan to the UK’s Sellafield reprocessing centre in its five holds, the twin-screw ship was powered by two eight-cylinder Ruston diesels, producing 4,070bhp and giving a service speed of 13 knots.

Featuring double hulls, double bottoms and twice the void space required of tankers, Pacific Swan was designed to withstand a collision with a 24,000-tonne ship travelling at 15 knots. All essential systems – such as power generation, propulsion and steering – were duplicated and separated, and the ship also featured dual navigation, communications and monitoring systems.

Code maker

The construction and operating criteria used for Pacific Swan and subsequent sisterships Pacific Crane and Pacific Teal formed a key part of the International Maritime Organisation’s Code for the Safe Carriage of Packaged Irradiated Nuclear Fuel, Plutonium and High-Level Radioactive Wastes on board Ships, introduced in 1993.

While PNTL routinely pointed to the safety of the Pacific sister ships, their cargoes – including used nuclear fuel, vitrified high-level nuclear waste, mixed oxide (MOx) fuel and plutonium – proved increasingly controversial. Countries including Argentina, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand sought to bar the ships from their waters and in 1995 a Chilean naval vessel escorted Pacific Swan away from the country’s EEZ, preventing it from using the Straits of Magellan.

Environmental issues

In February 1998 Pacific Swan was pitched into the centre of a major international row after being boarded by activists from the environmental group Greenpeace in the Panama Canal. Greenpeace claimed its action had exposed the vulnerability of nuclear shipments and it called for the carriage of intensely radioactive, vitrified high-level waste through the Panama Canal to be banned while the ‘thoroughly inept and ineffective’ security arrangements were investigated.

However, Pacific Swan made further voyages carrying high-level nuclear waste and MOX fuel between Europe and Japan over the following years, until going into lay-up early in 2004 after PNTL said it had ‘completed all its scheduled work’. In January 2005, after being certified free of any radiological contamination, the vessel arrived at ’s-Gravendeel for breaking up and recycling by Scheepsloperij Nederland.

Pacific Swan fact file


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