CHARLESTON, South Carolina - September 20 - Despite growing public and political concern about nuclear proliferation, a lightly armed UK-flagged commercial nuclear ship arrived today at Charleston, South Carolina to collect 300 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium for transport to France. The departure to France is expected later today under military escort. Greenpeace and local groups in the United States and France reiterated their opposition to the nuclear shipment.
"This shipment sends the strongest signal that the US holds little regard for global efforts to keep nuclear weapons materials out of commerce," said Tom Clements of Greenpeace International. "It is the height of arrogance to conduct a shipment like this while demanding other nations refrain from proliferating nuclear weapons materials and technologies."
Under the cover of darkness, the ship arrived in Charleston at 1:00 AM - Eastern Standard Time USA. An escort of five inflatables met the vessel as it entered the bay. Closer to the city, four police boats and two helicopters joined the escort. Police also closed down access points to the Cooper River (the naval weapon station where the plutonium will be loaded).
According to a letter from the Department of Homeland Security to Representative Ed Markey on September 8, "Coast Guard cutters, boats, aircraft and other local law enforcement and Navy assets" will be involved in the operation. That same letter admitted that no "formal threat assessment" had been prepared on the shipment but that "a field intelligence report" on environmentalists had been prepared by the Coast Guard (1).
Recently a new organisation, Citizens Against Plutonium (CAP), was formed to express concern felt by many in Charleston about the shipment and the refusal of the Department of Energy to prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment on it.
"How sensible is it to sail a ship carrying plutonium round the world at a time when world security is volatile? Whenever such a deadly substance is moved, there will be a risk of accidents or terrorist attacks. In the event of an incident, plutonium could be dispersed into the ocean, poisoning people and the marine environment on which we depend," said local Charleston resident Merrill Chapman of Citizens Against Plutonium.
Upon arrival in Cherbourg, France, the plutonium will be trucked over 660 miles in highly vulnerable trucks to a closed plutonium fuel fabrication facility in Cadarache, in the south of France. This is the same facility, operated by the state-owned nuclear company Areva/Cogema, where a nuclear accident involving plutonium occurred on 6 September, where two workers were contaminated.
"This transport is part of a misguided plan to put weapons plutonium into commercial use by converting it into MOX fuel (2) for use in nuclear reactors. This is an expensive and dangerous way to dispose of plutonium. All existing plutonium should be secured and mixed with nuclear waste and vitrified in robust containers, " concluded Clements.
(1) Letter to Rep. Markey is at: http://www.house.gov/markey/Issues/iss_homeland_resp040908.pdf
(2) Plutonium fuel is called mixed uranium-plutonium oxide, or MOX.