Union officials say Australia’s national security was placed at risk by the “contracting out” of a shipment of treated nuclear waste repatriated via Port Kembla at the weekend.
NSW Police accompanied the BBC Shanghai into port on Saturday and oversaw transport of its cargo to Lucas Heights.
But Australian authorities had scant control over the shipment prior to its arrival, MUA southern NSW branch secretary Garry Keane said.
The BBC Shanghai, a “flags of convenience” ship, was chartered by French nuclear company AREVA, which also reprocessed the waste. The company selected a crew of Russian and Ukrainian seafarers.
“These guys could literally come from anywhere in the world – they would not have gone through the background checks that American or Australian seafarers go through,” Mr Keane said.
”Forget about the whole terrorism side of things – they would have to take the vessel physically. But if you’ve got seafarer being ill-treated or underpaid, they are [vulnerable] to being bribed.
“[Australian authorities] went the cheapest way; they contracted out their problem. They made sure every truck carrying that cargo was absolutely spot-on – but nobody bothered to do any background checks on a ship going 12,000 miles.”
According to Mr Keane, the BBC Shanghai’s crew signed an internationally-binding wages agreement only en route to Australia, when operators were made aware the shipment was attracting public scrutiny.
The shipment arrived the day after a parliamentary inquiry into flags of convenience vessels heard that Australian authorities do not check the ownership of ships plying their trade in Australian waters.
With another shipment of treated nuclear waste due for repatriation to Australia by decade’s-end, International Transport Workers' Federation National Coordinator Dean Summers is calling for more stringent history checks for foreign vessels.
“They should be vetted by an Australian ship-vetting company,” he said.
A spokesman for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation said the BBC Shanghai was a nuclear-rated ship used in more than 170 nuclear transports worldwide. “The ship was checked in France by Australian nuclear experts, and the crew were cleared by Australian Border Force upon arrival.”
Saturday’s shipment was the combination four of the nine loads Australia has sent to France for reprocessing, in 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2004.
The first, in the 1960s, was permanently stored in the UK.
Another three were sent to the USA (in 1998, 2006 and 2009) for permanent storage.
“A final one was sent to the UK (in 1996) and after completion of reprocessing, it will return to Australia at about the end of this decade,” the ANSTO spokesman said.
On Monday, Mr Summers inspected the BBC Shanghai’s sister vessel, the BBC Virginia, at Port Kembla.
Both are part of the fleet of a German company, Briese Schiffahrt.
He found the BBC Virginia crew were being underpaid and working under a “sham” collective agreement.