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Plutonium Shipment Overview

Proliferation & Safety Risks of Plutonium Transport from Charleston to France

During late summer or early fall, the U.S. and French Governments are planning to transport up to 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of weapons-grade plutonium oxide (powder) from the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos Nuclear Lab (New Mexico) via the Charleston Naval Weapons Station (South Carolina) to the port of Cherbourg, France.

This unprecedented shipment is being undertaken as part of the U.S.-Russia program to "dispose" of weapons plutonium, but it presents a safety and proliferation threat and contradicts global efforts to halt trade in nuclear bomb material. Conducting such a shipment at this time of heightened concern about security reveals an arrogant and dangerous double standard that places us all at risk and threatens the international nuclear non-proliferation "regime."

The plutonium is being shipped to France by the Department of Energy (DOE) because there is no U.S. nuclear facility capable of manufacturing this weapons material into experimental plutonium fuel (MOX). Sea transport is the only option available to DOE as flying plutonium over the U.S. is illegal as no container that could survive an air crash is available. DOE has proposed building a MOX plant at the Savannah River Site though chronic delays and controversy now surround that proposal and the House of Representative substantially cut funds for the MOX plant in June and passed that recommendation to the Senate, where it is now stalled.

DOE applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an export license on October 1, 2003 and Greenpeace International formally intervened in opposition to the shipment. After many filings back and forth with DOE, the NRC voted on June 15, 2004, in a closed session, to approve the export license. Under federal "open government" regulations all such votes by the NRC are to be held in publicly noticed open sessions. That the vote did not follow legal procedures has been admitted by the NRC.

DOE, despite numerous requests, has refused to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the shipment and has only prepared a Supplement Analysis (SA), which requires no public participation and is prepared is secret. A full EIS should now be conducted, allowing residents of Charleston to express their views on the shipment. Likewise, emergency response authorities were also not allowed to comment on the DOE plan.

The proposed route of the plutonium:

  • Los Alamos to the Charleston Naval Weapons Station in South Carolina: 1500 miles. Three specially designed "Safe Secure Transport" (SST) vehicles, with an armed security escort, will transport the material across the U.S. It is unknown when the transport will take place or if they will stop en route at secure locations. The plutonium will be loaded into a French plutonium container, the FS-47, which has not yet received a certificate to be used in the U.S. French authorities have revealed that this container, which is not made from armored steel, is vulnerable to attack by a "conical shaped charge" such as a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) and that if attacked the contents could be dumped into the air, causing a potentially lethal accident. The vulnerability of this container reveals the absurdity of this shipment.
  • Port of Charleston to port of Cherbourg, northern France: 4100 miles. The lightly armed Pacific Nuclear Transport Limited (PNTL) vessels Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal, based in the port of Barrow, UK, have been selected for the transport. The ships have not been used for a nuclear transport for over two years and may require maintenance before the journey. So-called "sea trials" of the ships were conducted for approximately one week in early June 2004. The ships are each armed with three 30mm machine guns, have water cannons (expected to be operating during transit of Charleston harbor) and British nuclear police will be likely be on-board. The U.S. Coast guard is expected to escort the ship(s) in and out of harbor and possibly be on the PNTL vessels (as the British police may not be authorized to carry weapons in U.S. waters) but it is unknown who will pay for such security. Likewise, DOE has refused to reveal the cost of the shipment and fabrication of the MOX in France. The sea shipment security plan will have to be approved by both the US and UK governments and likely could involve Naval assets in a hidden manner.
  • In France, the plutonium would be transported in highly vulnerable trucks 700 miles to the Cadarache fuel fabrication facility north of Marseilles. Cadarache was closed in June 2003 due to seismic safety problems but will be reopened for this DOE mission. Once the plutonium fuel pellets are fabricated and placed in fuel rods, they would be assembled into four MOX fuel assemblies at the Melox facility north of Avignon and taken back to Cherbourg. Plutonium transports in France, we believe, arguably pose the easiest target in the world for someone wishing to steal or attack nuclear weapons materials.
  • The Pacific Teal and Pacific Pintail would once again be used for sea transport back to Charleston. The MOX fuel would then be loaded on SSTs and taken to Duke Energy's Catawba reactor near Rock Hill, SC for testing for a period of 3 years or more, with examination of the fuel to follow. This would be the first use of MOX made from weapons plutonium.

The U.S. Congress' Government Accountability Office (GAO) is now conducting an investigation into the transport and is expected to conduct a classified briefing on it within two weeks before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. At this point, due to the short time-line of the report, no public document is planned to be prepared. Thus, the public must push for such a document along with a Congressional debate before the shipment takes place.

Given the environmental and proliferation risks of handling, processing and transporting plutonium, such activities should be minimized. This transport goes against sound environmental and non-proliferation policies and should be halted. Likewise, surplus weapons plutonium is best managed as nuclear waste and not placed into commerce as DOE is now doing. DOE has clearly stated that the goal of the MOX program is to get the plutonium into a nuclear waste form (spent fuel) which makes it harder to steal. This objective can best be accomplished by mixing the plutonium back into the high level waste from which it was originally removed (via reprocessing of spent fuel from military reactors at Hanford, Washington and the Savannah River Site)

Atlantic Nuclear Free Flotilla

Local people in Charleston (Citizens Against Plutonium) and in coastal France who own ships are currently organizing a flotilla to protest the plutonium shipment on both sides of the Atlantic. The newly established Atlantic Nuclear Free Flotilla will jointly expose the environmental and proliferation risks of this transport.

Flotillas such as this have been implemented to protest shipments of nuclear waste and plutonium between Europe and Japan. The most recent flotillas were held in 2002 in the Tasman Sea between Australia and Japan and in the Irish Sea, off the UK's plutonium facility at Sellafield. The 2002 shipment of rejected MOX fuel from Japan to the UK garnered international attention due to the opposition by concerned ship owners who formed a flotilla to peacefully and legally express their concern.

Greenpeace International is supportive of the flotilla movements in both countries and will continue to work together as circumstances allow.

For more information please contact:
Tom Clements, Greenpeace International, Nuclear Campaign, 202-319-2411 (office),
202-415-6158 (cell),

For more on the French flotilla and plutonium transport in France:
John Bowler, Greenpeace International team leader: + 353 87 239 46 92
Shaun Burnie, Greenpeace International, Nuclear Campaign: +31 6 29 00 11 33

Key web sites on the current activities against the sea shipment and transport across France:
Citizens Against Plutonium (CAP) web site
Nuclear Free Flotilla web site:
Greenpeace France web site: