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Japan: Crippled whaling ship's engine restarted

Antarctica Whaling Ship Fire
The damaged Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru is sandwiched by a refueling vessel, left, and hunter vessel in the Ross Sea in Antarctica on Saturday.Daniel Beltra / Greenpeace AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Japanese whalers said Thursday they restarted the engine of a whaling ship damaged by fire near Antarctica, but New Zealand officials said the vessel remained a danger and demanded it be moved to avoid an environmental disaster.

Japan appears determined that the stricken Nisshin Maru will leave the region under its own steam, while New Zealand and conservationists say it should accept offers of help to tow it away to ease fears it could spill oil or other toxic chemicals near Antarctica's largest penguin rookery.

Glenn Inwood, a spokesman for the government-linked Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research, said the crew managed to get the engine started on Thursday, a week after a fire burned out the ship's main switchboards and engulfed its whale processing deck. One man died.

"The last report we had ... was that the engine was going. They'd replaced all the wiring, and checked all the gauges and the mechanics of it and kicked the old girl into gear," he told New Zealand's National Radio.

New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter said Japanese officials had made repeated claims of progress in the repairs, when it was clear the ship was dead in the water.

"The New Zealand government wants that ship out of there," Carter told Sky television.

He said the Japanese appeared to be too embarrassed about the ship to ask for help.

Steve Corbett of Maritime New Zealand, the search and rescue authority for the region that has been in daily contact with Nisshin Maru, said officials on board said they had conducted initial tests on the engine, but had given no sign that power was about to be restored.

"They have turned the engine over a couple of times — but it was never fully started and it's certainly not running at the moment," he said Thursday.

There was still "a fair bit of work to do to restore ... propulsion, steering, navigation and support systems. They've given no timeframe as to when that might be done by," he said.

Japanese officials say the fire did not cause any structural damage to the 8,000-ton ship, which is carrying some 343,000 gallons of oil and other chemicals. It is lashed to two other ships from the whaling fleet that will tow the vessel away from Antarctica if there is any environmental danger, officials say.

The weather in the Ross Sea where the ship is drifting continues to be calm, Corbett said.

Since being crippled seven days ago, the ship has drifted north 27 miles, putting it 137 miles north of the pristine Antarctic coast and the world's largest Adelie penguin breeding rookery, Corbett said.

The U.S. State Department said New Zealand had asked a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker to take pictures of the Nisshin Maru to help assess the potential threat it poses to the environment.

"They specifically asked a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, the Polar Sea, which was in the region, ... to take some pictures for their assessment purposes," spokesman Tom Casey said.

Greenpeace called again on the Japanese whalers to accept an offer of a tow from the conservation group's ship Esperanza, a former tug, which is nearby.

"The time to act is now, and Greenpeace has the only vessel in the area with the proper gear and necessary sea salvage capabilities," said Karen Sack, Whales Project Leader with Greenpeace USA.

Japan says its annual whale hunts are for research, but environmental groups say they are a pretext to keep Japan's tiny whaling industry alive. The IWC imposed a global ban on commercial whaling in 1986.