WEAPONS-grade plutonium, sufficient to make up to 40 nuclear warheads, is expected to be loaded onto two armed British ships in the US this week and then carried across the Atlantic to France.
The US plan to send 140 kilograms of bomb-grade plutonium for processing in France will be the most controversial nuclear shipment for years. Throughout its two-week voyage, the plutonium will be protected by British military forces. When it arrives at the port of Cherbourg it is expected to be greeted by protesters.
CHERBOURG, France - A group of activists from the environmental group Greenpeace broke into a military naval base to protest the arrival later in the year of a consignment of plutonium. The activists paddled into the base in canoes, evading police security boats, and managed to unfurl a large banner along the quay reading "Stop Plutonium," before 13 of them were arrested, Thursday, September 16, 2004. (AFP/Jean-Paul Barbier)
On September 3 the Pacific Teal and the Pacific Pintail, two armed nuclear transport ships run by the state-owned, British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), left the port of Barrow in northwest England. This weekend they are believed to be somewhere off the US naval base at Charleston in South Carolina.
In the next few days they will dock, take on board heavy casks of plutonium oxide, and head back across the Atlantic. After they arrive at Cherbourg, the plutonium will be taken by road to a fuel fabrication plant run by the French firm, Cogema, at Cadarache, north of Marseilles.
The US and French governments argue that the aim of the shipment is to get rid of "surplus" weapons plutonium by making it into a fuel for nuclear power stations. This is part of an agreement between the US and Russia that both countries will get rid of 34 tonnes of plutonium from "excess" nuclear warheads.
The plan is to make the plutonium into fuel rods, then transport them to another facility at Marcoule, north of Avignon, to assemble them. Sometime at the beginning of 2005, they will be returned to the US to try out in a reactor.
The US government is keen to demonstrate that the fuel, known as MOX, will work. It then plans to commission Cogema and others to help build and operate a MOX fuel fabrication plant at Savannah River in South Carolina.
The US plan has provoked fierce criticisms. "Unless it is carried out in a manner as safe and secure as possible, the cure may end up worse than the disease," said Dr Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC.
"It would be a disaster if plutonium were to be diverted or stolen by terrorists because of inadequate security during the stages of the disposition process. Yet if this program continues along its current path, such a theft may well be inevitable."
But such criticisms are rebuffed by the US, French and British authorities involved in the shipment. "It will proceed just fine with no safety or security problems," said Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the US National Nuclear Security Administration.
He says he cannot describe the security measures that are being taken, but he is confident that they will be sufficient. He accuses opponents of the shipment of helping terrorists by publicizing the planned route and timings.
Henry-Jacques Neau, head of transport with Cogema, said the shipment will have "the highest level of security" from British defense forces. BNFL points out that that its ships have an excellent safety record. "During more than 20 years of transports there has never been an incident resulting in the release of radioactivity," said a company spokesman.
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