Deadly Shipment from South Carolina

Feature story - September 20, 2004
Both President George Bush and presidential candidate John Kerry agree that nuclear proliferation is the top threat to U.S. security, yet a shipment of 140kg weapons-grade plutonium has made its way across the Atlantic from Charleston, South Carolina to France. Find out what's happening right now in France as the arriving shipment meets heavy opposition.

Greenpeace activists hang a banner above the Mirabeau Tunnel to protest the transport of the plutonium.

A Secretive Pick Up

Under the cover of darkness, the ship arrived in Charleston, South Carolina at 1:00 a.m. An escort of five inflatable boats met the vessel as it entered the bay. Closer to the city, four police boats and two helicopters joined the escort. Police closed down access points to the Cooper River.

What was the ship coming for?

To collect 300 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium for transport to France.

The plutonium has been designated surplus to the U.S. nuclear weapons program and is to be manufactured into experimental nuclear reactor fuel, or Plutonium MOX (mixed uranium plutonium), at French facilities operated by Areva/Cogema. The plutonium fuel will then be returned to the U.S. for testing at the Catawba nuclear reactor in South Carolina later next year.

Is Shipping Nuclear Waste Around the World a Safe Plan?

Both President George Bush and presidential candidate John Kerry agree that nuclear proliferation is the top threat to U.S. security, yet a shipment of 140kg weapons-grade plutonium has made its way across the Atlantic to France.

The U.S. Department of Energy was challenged by members of Congress on key security aspects of the planned transport. Concerns centered on the low level of security for the sea shipment as well as the vulnerability of the plutonium to terrorist attack at its destination in France.

According to a letter from the Department of Homeland Security to Representative Ed Markey on September 8, "Coast Guard cutters, boats, aircraft and other local law enforcement and Navy assets" will be involved in the operation. That same letter admitted that no "formal threat assessment" had been prepared on the shipment but that "a field intelligence report" on environmentalists had been prepared by the Coast Guard.

Find out more and read the letters.

Recently a new organization, Citizens Against Plutonium (CAP), was formed to express concern felt by many in Charleston about the shipment and the refusal of the 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.

Upon arrival in Cherbourg, France, the plutonium will be trucked over 660 miles in highly vulnerable trucks to a closed plutonium fuel fabrication facility in Cadarache, in the south of France. This is the same facility, operated by the state-owned nuclear company Areva/Cogema, where a nuclear accident involving plutonium occurred just days ago. Two workers were contaminated.

A More Sensible Plan

We have been lobbying for ten years to have all plutonium treated as nuclear waste not as potential reactor fuel. This approach would be cheaper, faster, safer, and more secure.

"This transport is part of a misguided plan to put weapons plutonium into commercial use by converting it into MOX fuel (2) 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," said Tom Clements, Greenpeace International.

Find Out More

Visit the English version of www.stop-plutonium.org to find detailed maps of the plutonium industry's operations, a comprehensive description of transportation methods as well as information on plutonium, MOX, weapons of mass destruction and nuclear proliferation.

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