Nukes on vacation

Activists lie in wait for nuclear shipment

Feature story - 21 September, 2004
LATEST UPDATES: www.stop-plutonium.orgThanks to the Bush Administration's disregard for global concerns about nuclear proliferation, two ships carrying some 140kg of weapons-grade plutonium are en route from Charleston, South Carolina, to Cherbourg in France. The two lightly armed UK-flagged commercial nuclear ships are now somewhere off the coast of France, waiting until a possible injunction is served against Greenpeace, to dock.

Greenpeace activists spend the night waiting for the imminent arrival of two BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels) ships, which are carrying 140kg of radioactive weapons-grade plutonium. The Pacific Pintail and the Pacific Teal left the U.S. port of Charleston, SC on September 20th. Greenpeace believes the shipment conducted by the US and France is unnecessarily threatening international security and putting the environment at risk.

The US lacks a suitable nuclear facility for converting this potential weapons material into experimental plutonium fuel (MOX) - so the Bush Administration is allowing it to be shipped around the world.

The shipment began its journey at the US Department of Energy's Los Alamos nuclear weapons facility in New Mexico, and covered almost 2,500km before arriving in Charleston. The ships left North Carolina and passed close to the Irish coast on their way to Cherbourg. Once unloaded the shipment will cover up to 1200km of roads before arriving at a closed plutonium fuel fabrication facility in Cadarache, in the south of France.

Earlier this month, two workers were contaminated during a nuclear accident involving plutonium at the Cadarache facility, which is operated by the state-owned nuclear company Areva/Cogema. As for the Los Alamos National Laboratory - operations there were recently suspended after classified data 'went missing'.

The total journey for the plutonium shipment? A ridiculous 6589km!

In both the US and France, local groups have mounted strong opposition to shipments, including the Nuclear-Free Atlantic Flotilla and Citizens Against Plutonium. Greenpeace also has been waiting patiently for the shipment to arrive and holding peaceful protests however the local authorities have responded with a heavy hand.

Eugene Riguidel, one of France's most famous sailors, John Castle of Guernsey and Pernilla Svenberg from Greenpeace International were arrested for mounting a peaceful protest inside the military port against the plutonium shipment. Although they were released within 24 hours from the military arsenal in Cherbourg, Greenpeace has been summoned to appear in the Cherbourg Court to face a request by Areva, through its subsidiary Cogema, and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), for an injunction preventing it from approaching within 300m of the two ships carrying plutonium or within 100m of the Cherbourg harbour.

"This shipment sends the strongest signal that the US holds little regard for global efforts to keep nuclear weapons materials out of commerce," said Tom Clements of Greenpeace International. "It is the height of arrogance to conduct a shipment like this while demanding other nations refrain from proliferating nuclear weapons materials and technologies."

In Charleston, Citizens Against Plutonium (CAP) was formed in response to the nuclear shipment, and to the refusal of the US Department of Energy to prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment on it.

"How sensible is it to sail a ship carrying plutonium round the world at a time when world security is volatile? Whenever such a deadly substance is moved, there will be a risk of accidents or terrorist attacks. In the event of an incident, plutonium could be dispersed into the ocean, poisoning people and the marine environment on which we depend," said local Charleston resident Merrill Chapman of Citizens Against Plutonium.

The US Department of Homeland Security wrote to Representative Ed Markey on September 8, telling him that "Coast Guard cutters, boats, aircraft and other local law enforcement and Navy assets" would be involved securing the passage of the ship. While the same letter admitted that no "formal threat assessment" had been prepared on the shipment, it seems that the Coast Guard had prepared "a field intelligence report" on environmentalists.

"This transport is part of a misguided plan to put weapons plutonium into commercial use by converting it into MOX fuel for use in nuclear reactors. This is an expensive and dangerous way to dispose of plutonium. All existing plutonium should be secured and mixed with nuclear waste and vitrified in robust containers, " concluded Clements.

Read the Letter to Rep. Markey (pdf)

Visit the Stop Plutonium website

Read about the Nuclear-Free Flotilla

Visit the Citizens Against Plutonium (CAP) in South Carolina