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By John Yeld and Henri du Plessis
In a desperate race against time, salvors have started removing oil, the main element in a potentially disastrous pollution cocktail aboard the grounded container ship Sealand Express.
The pumping operation began on Thursday night as environmentalists expressed alarm at the news that the vessel was also carrying 50 tons of uranium ore concentrate, destined to be turned into nuclear fuel in the United States.
But a nuclear engineer said the material was only mildly radioactive and that the oil posed a much bigger danger.
The ship is carrying 3 700 tons of fuel oil - nearly twice as much as the Treasure had aboard when it sank in June 2000, creating a major oil pollution disaster in Cape Town.
The salvage team from Smit Marine South Africa worked through the night to set up oil-pumping equipment and did test runs before getting the process under way.
Evelyn Holtzhausen, spokesperson for the owners of the ship, United States Ship Management, said early on Friday that a substantial amount of oil had been removed.
"They have been pumping since 3am today (Friday)and a lot of oil is already off," he said.
By mid-morning an estimated 70 tons of oil had been pumped to one of the anchor handler tugs.
Holtzhausen said the ship's owners had appointed the US-based marine safety and systems company Gallagher Marine Systems to investigate the running aground of the ship.
Holtzhausen said USSM was serious about solving the problem and doing everything possible to remove the vessel from the beach.
And in a statement from the United States, the owners said the hull remained sound and intact.
The Sealand Express, with a US master and crew, ran aground in the shallows at Sunset Beach between Milnerton and Table View on Tuesday during a storm.
It has more than 1 000 containers aboard, including 33 filled with hazardous materials such as compressed gas, fireworks and chemicals.
The removal of the oil has been given top priority by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa).
Samsa official Dave Colley said he was satisfied that the hazardous materials were safe at the moment, as the ship had been properly packed and stowed according to international regulations.
The oil removal process is reliant on the weather and will have to be terminated when bad weather returns to the Mother City - possibly as soon as Friday night.
The oil is being pumped along a 20mm floating pipe about 350m seaward to one of the anchor handler tugs.
These vessels will take the oil to the port for disposal.
Two officials from the US Coast Guard arrived in the city on Thursday and went aboard the stranded vessel to investigate why it went aground.
A spokesperson for the US embassy said this was routine when any US-flagged ship ran into trouble.
Holtzhausen denied speculation that the ship's grounding was being investigated by the National Intelligence Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States.
The master of the vessel had been questioned by authorities such as Samsa and the US Coast Guard. Rumours that salvors' cellphones had been confiscated were groundless, he said.
The department of environmental affairs and tourism has appointed a task team to deal with any environmental issues caused by the stranding of the Sealand Express - and may even seize the ship's contents if the owners do not co-operate by producing full details of all its cargo.
This warning was given on Thursday by the department's director-general, Chippy Olver, after a site visit.
South Africa's Nuclear Fuels Corporation confirmed on Thursday that 50 tons of uranium ore concentrate were on board the vessel.
The material was being shipped from South Africa for processing in the United States, where it was destined to be turned into nuclear fuel, said Nufcor operations director Paul Fitzsimon.
John Walmsley, president of the Institution of Nuclear Engineers (South Africa), said the uranium was likely to be in the form of "yellow cake" which was "only very mildly radioactive".
Liz McDaid, spokesperson for the environmental group Earthlife Africa, said: "We are no salvage experts, but we hope they are going to move the uranium as a precaution against the ship's breaking up, particularly because the next cold front is coming on Saturday and they can't float her off for eight days, when there is the next spring high tide."