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Charleston Post & Courier

Charleston, South Carolina

Planned plutonium shipment generates fears

Department of Energy discounts risk to Lowcountry from material's transfer

Of The Post and Courier Staff

A shipment of bomb-grade plutonium left over from the Cold War could arrive in Charleston Harbor as early as this month as part of a joint U.S.-Russian agreement to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons and convert them into power plant fuel.

While federal officials insist the shipment will be safe, local environmental activists and nuclear experts with Greenpeace say it could become a terrorist magnet and pose a threat to the Lowcountry's tourism and seafood industries.

The Department of Energy intends to ship the plutonium from the Charleston Naval Weapons Station to France in July or August, according to a federal document filed late last week.

Federal officials involved in approving the shipment said in recent federal filings that "the likelihood of an attempted act of sabotage or terrorism occurring is not precisely knowable," but that "the chance of success of any such attempt was judged to be very low."

In the federal filings, DOE officials said the agency "has taken a hard look at sabotage and terrorism and determined that adequate safeguards remain in place to meet such threats in the post-September 11 environment."

That doesn't calm the nerves of anti-nuclear activists.

"This shipment contains enough purified plutonium for 50 or more weapons of mass destruction, Tom Clements of Greenpeace International, said. "If someone had an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) and blew a hole in it, it could have disastrous effects."

In the wrong hands, the plutonium could be dispersed into the environment via a dirty bomb, proving fatal for people close enough to ingest or inhale the radioactive particles, Clements said.

Plans call for the plutonium, stored at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, to be shipped overland aboard special armored trucks to the weapons station on the Cooper River.

Weapons station spokeswoman Susan Piedfort said that as far as she knows, the military facility has never handled a shipment of plutonium.

She referred questions about the shipment to a DOE official who could not be reached for comment Monday.

From the Weapons Station, the plutonium would be loaded onto two armored ocean-going vessels bound for Cherbourg, France.

In France, the powdered plutonium would be fabricated into mixed oxide, or MOX fuel, at a special nuclear facility and shipped back through the Lowcountry.

The fuel assemblies to be produced in France are expected to come back through Charleston bound for Duke Energy's Catawba reactor south of Charlotte.

The MOX project is a test run of sorts for the federal government's plans to build a plant similar to the one in France at the federally owned Savannah River Site near Aiken.

The United States and Russia have committed to disposing of 34 metric tons of plutonium in parallel programs, but delays on Russia's end have pushed back construction of the proposed plant at SRS.

Most of the groups opposed to building the MOX plant at SRS favor an alternate plutonium disposal process called immobilization, which involves encasing surplus plutonium in glass logs and storing it in underground vaults. They say MOX creates security concerns because the stuff gets trucked around so much during the process and would generate a new form of radioactive waste at the power plants that will need special disposal.

Local anti-nuclear activists announced plans Monday to launch a flotilla to coincide with the plutonium shipment.

Mount Pleasant resident Merrill Chapman said the Nuclear-Free Atlantic Flotilla so far consists of about a dozen vessels. "We will not be blocking (the shipment)," Chapman said. "This is absolutely a peaceful protest."

The U.S. Coast Guard in Charleston is aware of the shipment but does not expect to announce any waterway closures, Coast Guard Lt. Kevin Floyd said.

Security vessels and helicopters will, however, escort the ship as it enters the harbor and heads upriver, said Floyd, adding that the activists' flotilla shouldn't pose a problem provided it obeys a roaming security zone around the ship carrying the plutonium.

If it managed to fall or leak into Lowcountry waterways during the shipment, the plutonium could cause irreparable harm to the local seafood and tourism industries that rely on healthy, navigable waterways, Chapman said.

This Associated Press article, was pubished in The Charleston Post & Courier, Sarasota (Florida) Herald-Tribune, The State (capital & largest city - Columbia, SC), the Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, SC), Charlotte Observer (largest city in North Carolina), Myrtle Beach (SC) Sun News, Orangeburg Times Democrat (Orangeburg, SC), the Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), WCIV-TV (Mt.Pleasant/Charleston, SC), WIS-TV (Columbia, SC), WSOC-TV (Charlotte, NC) (Columbia) and WCNC-TV (Charlotte, NC).