Terror cargo lands in France

Nuclear proliferation danger increases

Feature story - 6 October, 2004
After weeks of cat-and-mouse antics, the Pacific Pintail slipped into the port of Cherbourg with a deadly cargo of Plutonium -- but only after a French court ensured Greenpeace would be kept out of the way.

Activists onboard the Greenpeace ship MV Esperanza wait off the coast of France for the imminent arrival of the Pacific Pintail and the Pacific Teal.

Under the cover of darkness, the Pintail -- one of two vessels carrying a plutonium shipment from Charleston, South Carolina -- was escorted by sister vessel the Pacific Teal, all the while being tracked by the Greenpeace vessel Esperanza. It arrived at the dock at 5:45 AM, to be met by six yachts from the Atlantic Nuclear Free Flotilla flying "Stop Plutonium" banners.

An escort of six security inflatables with marine commandos, four military boats and two helicopters was also waiting and guarded the vessel as it entered the French port. The French Gendarmerie also established a closed security zone in the harbour in an attempt to stop any protest.

"This shipment of weapons plutonium is a wake-up call to the world - rather than ship this dangerous material worldwide, now is the time for aggressive steps to halt proliferation of all nuclear weapons materials," said Tom Clements of Greenpeace International.

"The military nature of the arrival in France clearly demonstrates that nuclear weapons materials are a threat to global security and have no place in commerce."

After being unloaded in La Hague, the cargo of 140 kg of plutonium oxide will be transported in the coming 24 hours more than 1,000 kilometres to a plutonium fuel fabrication facility in Caradache, Provence, in the South of France.

The route has not been announced for the land transport which is perhaps the most vulnerable stage in terms of accident or terrorist attack. Areva plans to convert the plutonium into an experimental fuel known as 'MOX' (mixed plutonium uranium oxide fuel), after which it transported back to the US early in 2005, to then be tested in US reactor over three years.

"Transportation of plutonium is highly vulnerable to accidents or deliberate attack and must be stopped. After the Atlantic crossing this transport is about to wind its way through France threatening everything in its path. It will be too late if there is a disaster to inform the people of France - that is what Greenpeace is determined to do over these coming days," said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International.

Greenpeace is opposed to the transport, as it is part of a global programme led by France's state-owned nuclear company Areva, and the governments of the US and Russia, to commercialise the large-scale use of weapons-grade plutonium as fuel in nuclear reactors. Such a program not only increases the vulnerability of plutonium but also sends the wrong nuclear proliferation signal worldwide.

Despite the claimed secrecy of the transport routes, Greenpeace has routinely tracked and photographed nuclear shipments in France.

If this weapons-grade plutonium fuel experiment succeeds, a total of 68 tons of weapons-grade plutonium from US and Russian weapons stockpiles - enough to make more than 15,000 nuclear bombs - will be exposed to theft, diversion and accidents.

Find out more

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