Monday, October 04, 2004

Freight Fright

Several news sites (e.g., BBC, International Herald Tribune, Canberra Times) report a quantity of 125-136 kg (275-300 lb) of weapons-grade plutonium, reportedly enough for 40 nuclear bombs, is to arrive late Monday night in the French port of Cherbourg. The shipment has been carried across the Atlantic by two ships, the Pacific Teal and Pacific Pintail, owned by a company whose largest shareholder is British Nuclear Fuels Ltd.

Wisely, BNFL will not disclose security arrangements, but the ships are believed to be armed only with a 30mm machine-gun and guarded by 13 special atomic energy policemen. Before leaving U.S. waters, however, the ships were escorted by "a combination of Coast Guard cutters, boats, aircraft and other local law enforcement and naval assets" (Canberra Times).

After landing in Cherbourg, the plutonium will be taken 965 km (600 miles) by trucks to Cadarache in the Provence-Alpes-Côted'Azur region of France, where it will be made into mixed-oxide (MOX) plutonium-uranium rods to become fuel for U.S. nuclear reactors.

Early next year, the rods will be transported back across the Atlantic to Charlotte, South Carolina. U.S. officials claim that the present trans-Atlantic trip of weapons-grade plutonium is a "one-off," because plans call for future batches of fuel to be made in a new plant in the U.S. to be built by the French group AREVA, the same company that is processing this shipment in Cherbourg.

The transformation of weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel is the result of an agreement between the United States and Russia in September, 2000. The two nations each agreed to eliminate 34 tonnes (37.5 U.S. tons) of weapons-grade plutonium in this way. Each year, at least two tonnes will be taken from stockpiles, transformed into fuel, and transported again to storage.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups are making a good bit of noise over this, in France and internationally. This is a rare occasion in which I agree with them. In a time when there is a heightened risk of terrorism, the transporting of plutonium, under limited security, poses a much greater threat than the status quo situation of the two cold war adversaries keeping close watch on their own fissile materials. Admittedly, an agreement for transforming swords into plowshares may have looked more promising before 9-11 than it does today. For now, one can only hope that the increased attention to this shipment, occasioned by the protests of environmentalists, will result in additional security and protection of this dangerous cargo against piracy by terrorists.

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|| headland, 11:41 PM

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