US plutonium shipment arrives in France, increasing global nuclear weapons proliferation risk
Cherbourg, France, 6 October 2004 - Despite growing public and political concern about nuclear proliferation, one of two lightly armed UK-flagged commercial nuclear cargo ship - Pacific Pintail - arrived in Cherbourg today. French nuclear company Areva have stated to the press that it has on board the U.S. weapons-grade plutonium, and will within hours be escorted by the French army to the reprocessing complex at la Hague 18km from Cherbourg.
Under the cover of darkness, the Pintail was escorted as far as the out dock by the Pacific Teal, tracked by the Greenpeace ship Esperanza. Arriving in the dock at 5:45 AM, to be met by a six yachts from the Atlantic Nuclear Free Flotilla flying "Stop Plutonium" banners. An escort of six security inflatableS with marine commandos, four military boats and two helicopters guarded the vessel as it entered the French port. The French Gendarmerie established a closed security zone in the harbour in an attempt to stop any protest. A Greenpeace press boat with a UK Independent Television News camera crew was arrested outside the military exclusion zone, then subsequently released.
After being transported to la Hague, the plutonium will be transported in the coming 24 hours more than 1,000 kilometres to a plutonium fuel fabrication facility in Caradache, Provence, in the South of France. The route has not been announced for the land transport which is perhaps the most vulnerable stage in terms of accident or terrorist attack. Areva plan to convert the plutonium into an experimental fuel known as 'MOX' (mixed plutonium uranium oxide fuel), after which it transported back to the United States early in 2005, to then be tested in U.S. reactor over 3 years.
"This shipment of weapons plutonium is a wake-up call to the world - rather than ship this dangerous material worldwide now is the time for aggressive steps to halt proliferation of all nuclear weapons materials. The military nature of the arrival in France clearly demonstrates that nuclear weapons materials are a threat to global security and have no place in commerce", said Tom Clements of Greenpeace International.
The plutonium, sent by the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), left the port of Charleston, South Carolina, on September 20. An international flotilla of French and Irish protest vessels was awaiting to protest its arrival. Greenpeace is opposed to the transport due to fact that it is part of a global program led by France's state-owned nuclear company Areva, and the governments of the United States and Russia, to commercialise the large-scale use of weapons-grade plutonium as fuel in nuclear reactors. Such a program not only increases the vulnerability of plutonium but also send the wrong nuclear proliferation signal worldwide, according to Greenpeace.
"Transportation of plutonium is highly vulnerable to accidents or deliberate attack and must be stopped. After the Atlantic crossing this transport is about to wind its way through France threatening everything in its path. The French government is determined to ignore the security and safety risks posed by plutonium transports by claiming that its secret. It will be too late if there is a disaster to inform the people of France - that is what Greenpeace is determined to do over these coming days," said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International.
Areva claims that this shipment is part of an effort to reduce the threat from nuclear proliferation yet continuously produces more and more plutonium at its la Hague plant where there is currently 70-80,000 kilograms of plutonium in storage.
If this weapons-grade plutonium fuel experiment succeeds, a total of 68 tons of weapons-grade plutonium from US and Russian weapons stockpiles - enough to make more than 15,000 nuclear bombs - will be exposed to theft, diversion and accidents. In addition, France and the UK have an estimated 180 tons of 'civil' plutonium created by the reprocessing of nuclear fuel, which pose a growing nuclear proliferation threat.
(1) BNFL currently has over 100 tons of plutonium at its
Sellafield nuclear complex in the UK. It plans to ship 50
tons to Europe and Japan over the next 10-20 years. Areva,
the French state nuclear company that will manufacture the
US plutonium into experimental nuclear fuel, has between
70-80 tons of plutonium sitting at la Hague in Normandy, all
which it plans to transport to clients in Europe and Japan within 10-15 years.