Plutonium to be Shipped Overseas Through Charleston
Published on Friday, October 10, 2003 by The State (Charleston, South Carolina)
Plutonium to be Shipped Overseas Through Charleston
by Sammy Fretwell
 

The U.S. Department of Energy plans to send deadly plutonium through Charleston as part of its program to make mixed oxide fuel for use in commercial atomic power reactors.


The amount of plutonium going through Charleston — up to 300 pounds — would be enough to make 50 atomic weapons, according to Greenpeace, an environmental group tracking the issue.

Federal records show that up to 300 pounds of plutonium powder will be shipped across the country from a U.S. nuclear complex at Los Alamos, N.M., put on ships in Charleston and sent to France, where it will be turned into mixed oxide fuel.

The amount of plutonium going through Charleston — up to 300 pounds — would be enough to make 50 atomic weapons, according to Greenpeace, an environmental group tracking the issue.

Once the plutonium-blended fuel has been made at a fabrication plant in France, it will be shipped back to Charleston, then taken to a Duke Energy nuclear facility in York County, according to an Oct. 1 application to export nuclear material.

Mixed oxide fuel, or MOX, would then be tested in Duke’s Catawba nuclear facility to see how well it works, records show. The shipments would go through Charleston in August 2004 and return in early 2005, the export license request said.

The Energy Department’s plan is part of a government proposal to turn surplus weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial power plants. The plutonium would be blended at a plant on the Savannah River Site near Aiken. The fuel would for the first time be regularly burned at an American commercial nuclear plant. The DOE will send up to 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium to SRS for use in MOX fuel, according to plans.

But the mixed oxide fuel plant at SRS hasn’t been built, so the government is seeking to obtain fuel for testing from a French plant.

Nuclear nonproliferation activists said Thursday they are worried about terrorist attacks on the shipments, either in the United States, on the open seas or in France.

“Shipping plutonium long distances around the world presents a target for attack,” said Tom Clements, a nuclear nonproliferation expert with Greenpeace. Clements’ group also opposes the MOX program because of safety and nonproliferation concerns.

Plutonium also can increase a person’s chances of lung cancer if inhaled, even in microscopic amounts.

DOE spokesman Joe Davis told the Associated Press that the plutonium transports will be adequately guarded.

“Charleston and DOE officials are capable of making sure the shipments arrive safe and secure,’’ Davis said.

In this instance, plutonium oxide would be shipped in eight or nine packages to the Charleston Naval Weapons Station. Two armed ships would then leave Charleston for France. Having two ships provides “an acceptable level of protection,” according to the DOE’s Oct. 1 export license request.

In France, the material would be shipped by land to a MOX fabrication plant, the export license request shows. French authorities would be in charge of guarding the shipments in that country.

Upon its return to Charleston, the plutonium-blended fuel will be unloaded and shipped over land to Duke Energy’s nuclear Catawba nuclear plant, records show. A heavily guarded “safe-secure transport” system would be used to haul the material to Catawba, the license application said.

© 2003 The State

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