Scrap trade

Once the pride of the French Navy, the aircraft carrier Clemenceau is now the ship that nobody wants.

Towering 213ft high and 738ft long, the great flagship was launched in 1957; half a century on, it has reached the end of its lifetime and now faces the fate of all ships: it has to be broken up. And here’s the problem. The state of the art in materials science in the late 1950s is now a major environmental problem. Clemenceau is full of asbestos.

Most ship-breaking happens in India and that’s where Clemenceau was headed in 2005, but an outcry at the ‘toxic ship’ in India led to it returning to France. But now, France has found another country that is willing to take on the risk: the UK. Clemenceau has docked in Hartlepool, joining a ‘ghost fleet’ of toxic ships to be broken up by Able UK.

This has provoked some controversy. Is Britain the world’s scrap-heap? Should we be dealing with the rest of the world’s filth and poison? Isn’t this a bit of a comedown for the nation that once ruled the waves?

Interesting question. There’s no doubt that the business of scrapping ships is not very glamorous. Look at photos of the beaches of Alang, the centre of India’s ship-breaking trade, and you’ll see terrifying images of rusting hulks emerging from clouds of yellowish dust. Other waste treatment industries — from household waste incineration to the business of handling and treating nuclear waste — have also faced opposition from local campaigners and environmentalists.

However, the reason that companies such as Able win contracts for hazardous ship-breaking and why BNFL attempted to set up a reprocessing business at Sellafield is that these are classic engineering problems. Handling hazardous materials in a safe manner and ensuring that anything recyclable is recycled in a sustainable and verifiable fashion are as much a part of high-technology industry as semiconductors and medical devices. Definitely not as pretty, though.

Leaving behind the vaguely racist argument that only developing nations are fit places to deal with the waste of the West, it is surely unseemly to argue that waste and toxicity are something that the UK should not deal with. We accept that waste handling is necessary in any number of industries that use or produce toxic or hazardous materials. Moreover, just as children are taught that they should clean up after themselves, industry is increasingly realising that the end of a product’s life is just as important as the beginning. That’s just as true whether the product is a yoghurt pot or an aircraft carrier.

So maybe the Clemenceau should have been scrapped in France? Well, yes. But the UK stepped forward because of the engineering skills that exist here. We’re proud of those when they’re associated with polished stainless steel, groundbreaking electronics, renewable energy and life-saving medical scanners. Why shouldn’t we be proud of them when they’re associated with making sure that hazardous materials don’t do anyone any harm?

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor