* The Department of Energy (DOE) recently applied quietly to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to ship more than 300 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium oxide to France for conversion to plutonium fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors. The plutonium would be shipped from Los Alamos National Laboratory to the Charleston Naval Weapons Station in South Carolina, where it would be loaded aboard a lightly armed British-flagged transport vessel and accompanied to France by a similar escort ship.
The plutonium will be converted in France, as the United States does not yet have the capability for producing plutonium fuel. The plutonium will be stored at France's Cadarache facility, which was recently closed by French safety authorities because of potential seismic dangers. France will then ship the plutonium fuel back to the United States. The process is expected to begin in July or August 2004 and end sometime in 2007.
Activists are concerned because such a shipment would constitute a major federal action under the National Environmental Policy Act, yet no environmental impact statement has been prepared. Tom Clements, of Greenpeace International, said, "Given the risk of accident or deliberate attack presented by transporting plutonium, the U.S. must show the world that it will abide by the highest non-proliferation norms and cancel this shipment."
Furthermore, Greenpeace is concerned because of the French government's new regulation that no information about plutonium transportation whatsoever may be released to the public, the media, local authorities or regulatory bodies. Yannick Rousselet, of Greenpeace France, said, "The threat posed by the nuclear industry, including the transportation of plutonium, affects all of the society. The [regulation] is a crude and flawed attempt to suppress nuclear information that the public need[s] to know."
Greenpeace France maintains a website that provides details about plutonium shipments across France, including dates and routes, which has caused particular concern among the French government and nuclear industry. Greenpeace, as well as several French scientific, research and journalists' associations, filed a legal challenge to France's stringent nuclear information regulation recently so that information about plutonium transportation in France may remain public. Until earlier this year, France transported more than 300 pounds of plutonium around the country multiple times a week.
Shaun Burnie, also of Greenpeace International, said, "If North Korea or Iran were to transport [300 pounds] of plutonium in one year, George Bush would declare it a threat to global security and be preparing to send in the cruise missiles. [...The] French government move[s] this amount of weapons material every [two to three] days."
Three hundred pounds of plutonium is enough to produce roughly 50 nuclear weapons. Didier Lallemand, of France's Ministry of Industry, admitted that plutonium transported by France's nuclear industry poses a proliferation and security danger unlike other nuclear materials.
Burnie said, "The reality is plutonium, whether produced by .. France, or shipped from the United States, can be directly used as nuclear weapons material. The only safe and secure option is to stop the trade in bomb material."