Military expert Peter Suciu gave us a detailed and exclusive analysis of why an old aircraft carrier is on quite a strange journey with many risks involved: Retired warships have not always been disposed of using the most environmentally friendly methods. The United States actually used a number of retired ships – including the USS Nevada (BB-36) – in an atomic bomb test, while many old ships were simply beached and torched! However, the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (the Hong Kong Convention) was adopted in 2009 to address these issues.
He called for ships being recycled after reaching the end of their operational life not to pose any unnecessary risk to human health and safety or the environment.
Retiring such warships is a costly undertaking.
That’s why the US Navy will spend $1.5 billion over the next 15 years to ensure the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, is properly recycled. In contrast, the US Navy sold its last two non-nuclear aircraft carriers – USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) and USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) – for one cent each to Texas-based International Shipbreaking Limited. It will take many more years for these warships to be carefully demolished.
Toxic aircraft carrier in tow
Currently, there is some outrage as the ex-Brazilian Navy’s former flagship aircraft carrier, NAe São Paulo, is being towed across the Atlantic Ocean to Turkey – apparently in defiance of international and even Brazilian law. The ship, which began life as the French Navy’s Clemenceau-class Foch aircraft carrier, had left Brazil on August 4, towed by the Dutch ship Alp Center for a 6,000-mile voyage to Aliaga, in Turkey, where the flattop will be cut. at the top.
The vessel is now being transported in defiance of an injunction from Brazil’s Federal District Court and, according to several activist groups, it was exported in violation of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their elimination, as well as the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean.
Most remarkably, several Turkish communities have expressed concern over the impending arrival and scrapping of the vessel, which they believe will pose an unacceptable toxic threat.
“Safe recycling or repurposing is, of course, the right thing to do with old ships. But dismantling old ships, laden with toxic paints, asbestos and carcinogenic chemicals, is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. This should only be done in strict compliance with international and national laws and standards. The preparation and plan of this ship is already failing this test,” said Jim Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network (BAN), which fights the export of toxic waste from technology and other products.
Aircraft carrier failure
Brazil acquired the ship in 2000, and she was refitted and recommissioned as São Paulo, replacing the former British-made Colossus-class carrier operated by Brazil as Minas Gerais. Although São Paulo increased the capacity of the Brazilian Navy, she had a remarkably poor service record and for 16 years of service she never managed more than three months of operations between maintenance periods. Brazil also struggled to deploy the ship due to funding issues, and it was mainly used for pilot training in port.
The ship suffered two fires, and although there were calls to modernize the ship, which could have allowed her to serve until the late 2030s, it was decided to retire and sell the ship instead. In 2017, the Brazilian Navy decided that further investment in repair would not be profitable and officially decommissioned her in 2018.
Efforts to save the ship – either as a museum or as a training ship for the Turkish Navy – failed last year. The latter plan was scuttled because the bilateral agreement between Paris and Brasilia stipulated that Brazil would be the “end user”.
While attempts to save the ship ended in failure, the retired flattop is now on its final voyage. However, it is not without serious controversy. According to the towing plan filed by the Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (IBAMA), the cross-border movement of the carrier from Brazil to Turkey will pass through the Strait of Gibraltar and therefore cross the territorial waters of the Spain, the United Kingdom and/or Morocco. Under the Basel Convention, all transit states must be notified and give their consent before the export can begin.
Whether these nations were notified is currently the subject of debate, and IBAMA has apparently stated that it believes that prior notification to transit states is not necessary if the vessel does not s didn’t stop at a port. Critics argue that this is a weak excuse because it is not the first time that IBAMA, the administrative arm of Brazil’s environment ministry, has had to move a warship.
The biggest concern is that this is a toxic waste hazard. According to the NGO Aliaga Environment Platform, the 60-year-old ship is carrying a large amount of asbestos on board, possibly up to 600 tonnes.
Indeed, the Turkish Association of Asbestos Removal Experts (ASUD) found that its sister ship Clemenceau contained more than 700 tons of asbestos when it was sent for scrapping in India. Clemenceau’s nearly decade-long saga has been a protracted and contentious affair, as several nations have refused to accept him for scrapping. After years of negotiations, when the ship left France at the end of 2005, strong protests broke out over the improper disposal and lack of facilities for the management of toxic waste on the beaches of Alang, India, where the work had to be completed.
The carrier was later boarded by militants, detained by Egyptian authorities, and eventually barred from entering Indian waters by the Supreme Court of India. The warship was then ordered to return to France by French President Jacques Chirac. She was eventually dismantled at a specialist yard owned by Able UK near Hartlepool, UK in 2009 and work was completed a year later.
It’s possible that São Paulo’s story has a lot more to come.
Biography of the expert: An editor since 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with more than 3,000 articles published during a twenty-year career in journalism. He writes regularly on military hardware, the history of firearms, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a contributing writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.