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10-10-03 U.S. Plans to Ship Weapons Plutonium to France

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is pursuing a plan to ship "up to 140 kilograms" of weapons plutonium - enough for fifty or more nuclear weapons - to France for processing. The news comes as the French Government has ruled that information on plutonium transports and all other nuclear matters is now a state secret on the grounds of national security.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published the information on a document quietly released on October 7, 2003. The plan, revealed in an export licence filed with the NRC, presents an unacceptable proliferation and safety risk and should be cancelled, according to Greenpeace International.

"DOE's scheme to ship weapons plutonium reveals that the U.S. refuses to apply the same non-proliferation standards to itself which it is attempting to dictate to the world," said Tom Clements of Greenpeace International. "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."

DOE proposes to export the weapons plutonium to France from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, via the Charleston Naval Weapons Station in South Carolina. The dangerous material would be placed in containers on a lightly-armed British-flagged transport vessel and escorted by a similar vessel to the port of Cherbourg, France. It would then be turned over to France for protection and taken to the Cadarache plutonium facility, recently-closed by French safety authorities due to seismic safety concerns (1).

DOE has refused requests by Greenpeace and other environmental and non-proliferation organizations to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the shipment, as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (2).

A French Government regulation ("arr?te") against revealing information about nuclear matters is particularly targeted at Greenpeace, but threatens to suppress information disclosed by the media, local authorities, regulatory bodies and even the nuclear industry itself.

The French authorities and Cogema are particularly angry about information on plutonium transports disclosed on the website. On October 9, Greenpeace launched a legal challenge against the French Government to overturn the regulation, which was issued in August. Greenpeace was joined in the challenge by French scientific, research and journalists associations. (3)

"No security system can guarantee the safety of plutonium and that is why the French authorities are trying to stop the public's right to know what threatens them. The reality is plutonium, whether produced by Cogema in 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," said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International in France.

Notes to Editor:
(1). At Cadarache, operated by the state-owned plutonium company Cogema, the weapons plutonium would be processed into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) "lead test assemblies" (LTAs) and then shipped back to the U.S. under limited protection. The overland shipment in France will be especially risky as shipment routes and methods for plutonium are widely known and vulnerable, as has been recently documented by Greenpeace France. The U.S. lacks a MOX plant in which to fabricate the LTAs though DOE is hoping to build such a plant, at a cost of perhaps $2 billion, at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

(2). Unanswered group letter to DOE requesting an EIS, the DOE export licence, and a briefing on the MOX LTA manufacture and can be found at:

(3). The associations are CRIIRAD (independent radiation research institute), Reporters sans Frontieres (Journalists without Frontiers), nuclear consultancy Wise-Paris, and Journalistes pour la Nature et Environment (Journalists for the Nature and Environment).