Security risks ignored as BNFL Nuclear Freighters Depart UK

Press release - 3 September, 2004
Two lightly armed UK-flagged nuclear freighters have departed the U.K. in a trans-Atlantic voyage to pick up a cargo of weapons-grade plutonium from the U.S. military port of Charleston, South Carolina, Greenpeace has learned. One ship, the Pacific Teal left the port of Barrow-in-Furness on the high tide during the night and the other, the Pacific Pintail, left on this afternoon's high tide around 2.00 p.m.

"Once again, BNFL backed by the UK Government, are preparing to increase the risk to international security and the environment by shipping plutonium across the ocean. There is no justification for this transport as the whole policy of using weapons plutonium in reactors is dangerously misguided and undermines efforts to keep nuclear weapons materials out of commerce," said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International.

The plutonium has been designated surplus to the U.S. nuclear weapons program and is to be manufactured into experimental nuclear reactor fuel (mixed uranium-plutonium oxide - MOX), at French facilities operated by Areva/Cogema. The ships will pick up 140 kilograms of the plutonium, enough for 25-40 nuclear weapons and deliver it to the port of Cherbourg, France. The trans-Atlantic voyage will take around two weeks.

In France, the plutonium will be trucked over 1000 kilometres in highly vulnerable trucks to plutonium fuel fabrication facilities and then returned next year via Charleston for testing in the Catawba nuclear reactor in South Carolina.

"International non-proliferation policy addressing plutonium has been hi-jacked by the commercial nuclear industry," said Tom Clements of Greenpeace International in Washington, D.C. "This shipment underscores U.S., U.K. and French disregard for strong nuclear non-proliferation policies and makes a mockery out of rhetoric to control nuclear weapons materials." Greenpeace has 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.

The Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal, carry a complement of 13 armed anti-terrorist police, as well as three 30mm cannons. In contrast to this low-level security, previous plutonium shipments have involved naval vessels from the U.S., France and the U.K., as well as U.S. marines.

Last week, the U.S Department of Energy, which has refused to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on the shipment, was challenged by members of Congress on key security aspects of the planned transport. Concerns centred on the low level of security for the sea shipment (no dedicated armed military vessels) as well as the vulnerability of the plutonium to terrorist attack in France, where security is poor (1).

Greenpeace recently met with members of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative branch of Congress, to discuss the shipment and share a video that exposes the lack of security measures provided for domestic transports of plutonium in France. The weapons-grade plutonium will be carried in containers that would not withstand an attack by a rocket-propelled grenade (2).

VVPR info: Photos of nuclear transport ships available at http://www.stop-plutonium.orgVideo clips of insecure truck transport of plutonium in France

Notes: (1) Rep. Turner letter questioning security of plutonium shipment - See "Is Plutonium Shipment Secure?" at: Rep. Markey letters on plutonium shipment: (2) French Government document on vulnerability of FS-47 plutonium containers to attack by RPGs, see page 8