Greenpeace defies secrecy order

Demand for public scrutiny of dangerous plutonium shipments in France could bring jail terms

Feature story - 8 October, 2003
Greenpeace today informed the French government at a hearing that we will not remove information concerning nuclear waste transports from our websites. This defies an order from the French Ministry of Industry to treat all information regarding nuclear materials in France and their transport as state secrets. As a consequence, Greenpeace France and its staff may be facing jail and fines for informing the public about dangerous plutonium shipments.

Greenpeace activists protesting nuclear power at Cattenom.

An order issued on August 9th in Paris declared all information regarding the protection of nuclear materials, including transports, classified for national security purposes. Greenpeace is opposed to the production, transport and use of plutonium.

Details on the transportation of plutonium, released in defiance of the new decree, will be presented by Greenpeace at a "Special Commission" that will hold a meeting on nuclear affairs today. Politicians, Government officials and representatives of Cogema, the state reprocessing company in Cherbourg, will attend this meeting. The head of nuclear security within the French Government, M. Lallemand, responsible for issuing the new security decree, is also scheduled to testify at the Special Commission hearing.

In February this year Greenpeace blocked a nuclear transport containing 150 kilogram of pure plutonium in the city center of Chalon-sur-Saone, while en route from la Hague, Normandy to Marcoule, in Provence. Cogema, the state nuclear reprocessing company, conducts as many as 2-3 transports every week from its reprocessing complex at la Hague to its plutonium fuel production plant at Marcoule. Each transport carries enough plutonium for 30 nuclear weapons. In May, after Cogema resumed transports, Greenpeace launched a 'citizens inspection' website containing information on plutonium transports observed by volunteers and activists along the 1000 kilometre route:

"Putting us in jail to keep us quiet will not remove the danger." said Yannick Rousselet. "Nuclear fuel shipments are dangerous to the communities they move through, they are potential terrorist targets, and they should be stopped rather than covered up."

Ironically, the order flies in the face of nuclear industry company Areva's policy of "maximum openness" regarding nuclear transports. Under the new order, much of what Areva publishes on their website and releases to the public would be classified illegal. But according to an Areva spokesperson quoted in Le Monde, the nuclear industry, which claims it was not consulted on the new law, was told "we didn't need to change anything in our communication policy."

The target of the order is Greenpeace, which has exposed the threat from land and sea transports of nuclear fuel and waste in France and around the world.

Nuclear materials travel a cumulative distance of 250,000 kilometres each year in France. One plutonium transport contains sufficient material for 30 Nagasaki-type nuclear bombs. One cask full of highly radioactive spent fuel elements contains approximately as much radiation as was released by the Chernobyl disaster.

The nuclear industry claims that the casks are safe because they have to undergo crash tests. In fact, they are tested to maintain integrity when dropped 9 metres onto a hard rigid surface, or dropped 1 metre onto a metal bar. They are tested to survive a 30 minute hydrocarbon fire at 800 °C. And they are cited as safe for immersion to a depth of 15 metres of water for 8 hours.

Yet according to French accident statistics for hazardous materials, the casks would not withstand 1 accident in 20 involving impact, and 50% of accidents involving fires.

Transports could also be targets for terrorist attacks or theft: Pierre Robert, a Frenchman jailed for life in Morroco for terrorism, claimed to know of Al-Quaeda plans to attack a Cogema plutonium transport. Greenpeace and WISE, in a report published in February of this year, estimated that if such an attack were carried out with heavy artillery near Lyon, it would impact 125,000 people, cause 500 fatal cancers and require the evacuation of part of the city of Lyon and its outlying suburbs.

Transports are carried out without prior notification or consent of the communities or countries along the transport routes. Last year Greenpeace tracked and highlighted the dangers of a British plutonium fuel transport from Japan to the UK. Over 80 Governments condemned the transport based upon information provided by the environmental organization along the 30,000 kilometre route through the Pacific, Southern Ocean and Atlantic.

The French government's move to silence Greenpeace is consistent with a larger move worldwide toward greater government secrecy in the name of security. The nuclear industry in particular is taking advantage of public fears of terrorist attack to become less transparent and to silence dissent.

In the United States, hundreds of thousands of public documents were removed from government Web sites following the September 11th attacks, including Environmental Protection Agency reports on the consequences of industrial accidents. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department told U.S. agencies to be more cautious about releasing records and other materials.

"If governments are serious about reducing the threat of nuclear materials," said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International "then the only thing to do is end nuclear power. Increased secrecy conveniently serves the nuclear industry's agenda of diminished scrutiny. That means greater risks to an uninformed public, and less public opposition. Plutonium and nuclear energy are not compatible with democracy and have no place in our global society."

More information

Wise-Paris/Greenpeace study on transport of nuclear materials in France