Greenpeace exposes terror target

Plutonium shipments in France, reactors in Germany vulnerable

Feature story - 3 March, 2004
A standard commercial truck with a shipment of reactor-grade plutonium approaches the Versailles tunnel, 15 km (10 miles) outside Paris. The driver, who makes the North-South run every ten days, sees nothing unusual as two tanker trucks carrying fuel oil pull into the passing lane alongside his Gendarme escorts. They never see it coming. As the nuclear convoy moves into the centre of the tunnel, the tanker trucks jackknife into the right-hand lane, crushing the light police vehicles and creating a wall on either side of the plutonium shipment. A third vehicle empties quickly; young men with metal cutters and automatic weapons run toward the truck.

Plutonium shipments cross France every 7-10 days.

A single bullet kills the driver. Two surviving Gendarmes are killed trying to get their armour and weapons out of the back of one of the crushed vehicles, while the terrorists slice through the rear door bolts of the truck. They place a kilogram of C-4 on each of the 9 flasks of deadly plutonium powder in the truck. Then they detonate both fuel and plutonium, setting off a panic evacuation of Paris. The attack takes 12 minutes. The deaths and economic impact will continue for years.

George Bush claimed that Al Qaeda had blueprints of US nuclear power plants in caves in Afghanistan. Greenpeace first revealed that this was yet another State of the Union falsehood by the US President. But there was a truth buried in that lie: it would be hard to find better targets for terrorists today than nuclear power plants and plutonium shipments.

In Germany, a leaked Government report has surfaced which concludes that none of Germany's nuclear reactors would withstand the impact of a World-Trade-Centre style attack. As a consequence of the report the Head of the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection has called on reactor operators in Germany to close down the five most vulnerable reactors.

The findings confirm research commissioned by Greenpeace in Germany in the immediate wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

In France, Greenpeace has released chilling details of a far easier and equally deadly terror target: routine, predictable shipments of plutonium, the equivalent of 40 Hiroshima bombs per convoy, that cross France every week to ten days.

The report, by Large and Associates, evaluates several scenarios, including road collisions, tunnel fires, and terrorist attacks, which might accidentally or intentionally release plutonium fuel (termed mixed oxide fuel, or MOX) into the atmosphere. The report models resulting plumes from two sites, one outside Paris and one outside Lyon.

Easy targets

Greenpeace has been tracking and exposing MOX shipment routes for years. The highly predictable schedule of these shipments, and their tendency to travel close to major population centres, make them easy targets. Here's a roadside video shot recently by a Greenpeace volunteer who knew when and where the shipment would pass.

In the US, MOX fuel is transported in a specially designed armoured vehicle providing thermal protection to the inner contents of the cargo hold, and which is equipped with communications, radiological monitoring and other devices that physically prevent removal of the consignments, including immobilising foam to overwhelm an attacker. Each truck is limited to 3 flasks of plutonium.

In comparison, the French-sourced consignments are transported in what appears to be a standard ISO container fitted to a commercial articulated vehicle carrying up to 10 flasks of plutonium. The space occupied by the flask frame in the container suggests it is unlikely to have any devices installed to prevent their physical removal.

Devastating results

Beyond the immediate deaths from the hypothetical attack, the Large report estimates that 11,000 people -- more than three times the death toll of the attack on the World Trade Centre -- would die of long-term effects from radiation exposure.

An attack could require a 110 km (68 mile) sheltering distance. For comparison, the Eiffel tower is only 15 km (9 miles) from where the transports pass every week.

The Large report recommends a full study of the wider social and economic impacts of a plutonium attack or accident. It would be likely that in the wake of any nuclear contamination of the region, tourism to Paris and Disneyland would collapse. A vast number of France's agricultural products, including French wine, would be banned from export. The radioactive plume could drift over Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.

The report does not predict deaths or injuries from a panic evacuation of Paris, but a French Government report from the Director of Nuclear Safety, Andre Lacoste, admits that no strategy exists to deal with nuclear incidents -- either accidental or as a result of terrorist attack.

Unnecessary risk

Now, imagine a scenario in which a terrorist attempted to attack a windmill. Or a solar farm. Or a wave power station.

A new Greenpeace report, Sea Wind Europe demonstrates that offshore wind power alone could provide Europe with one third of its electricity needs. The International Energy Agency last year published a report demonstrating that with energy efficiency in households alone the equivalent energy output of 40 large nuclear power plants could be saved. With the immediate closure of the most dangerous reactors, the market for clean energy will be boosted, generating more jobs and more security. Greenpeace is calling on European countries to take a lead in promoting renewable energy development by declaring a minimum target of 20 percent by 2020 at the upcoming intergovernmental conference on Renewables to be held in Bonn in June.

Take action

Write US authorities and ask them to stop the shipment of plutonium to France.

Become a cyberactivist. Join the Greenpeace cybercentre and get a free newsletter highlighting online actions you can take to help stop the nuclear fuel cycle and protect our threatened world.

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More Information

Read the full report on the threat of a plutonium fuel accident or attack in France.