updated 2/26/2007 11:37:38 AM ET 2007-02-26T16:37:38

A Japanese whaling ship that drifted powerless for nine days near the world's biggest penguin breeding ground had posed a huge risk to the pristine Antarctic environment, New Zealand's prime minister said Monday.

The Nisshin Maru began moving away from the Antarctic coast under its own power Sunday, 10 days after being crippled by fire. The 8,000-ton whale-meat processing ship, which is carrying 343,000 gallons of fuel oil, had been drifting in the Ross Sea lashed to two other whaling fleet boats.

"When you have a boat disabled like that, with a chance it could sink and go down with all that fuel on board — and there was a lot of it — that poses a huge risk to the Antarctic environment," New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said Monday.

"We consider the Antarctic environment was put at risk," she told TV One news, rejecting claims by the ship's owners that New Zealand had exaggerated the risk of a major environmental mishap.

No fuel has leaked from the ship. One sailor died in the blaze.

Japan has been determined that the ship move under its own power, while New Zealand and conservationists urged the ship to accept offers of a tow amid fears it could spill oil or other toxic chemicals off Cape Adare, home to some 250,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins.

Glenn Inwood, a spokesman for Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research, said the crew would spend the next two to three days testing that all systems on the ship, including engines, steering and navigation, are functioning.

"By Wednesday they expect to make a decision to either stay or leave the Antarctic," Inwood said. "Ideally they can stay down there and spend the next two to three weeks completing the research (annual whale hunt)."

Japan says its annual whale hunts — this year they're allowed to kill 945 whales — are for research, but environmental groups say they are a pretext to keep Japan's tiny whaling industry alive. The whale meat is sold for food.

The International Whaling Commission imposed a global ban on commercial whaling in 1986.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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