PARIS – Over several days now France has been home to a new consignment of 140 kg of plutonium, enough to build 20 atom bombs. The plutonium from the dismantling of U.S. nuclear weapons has been sent to France for treatment.
The freight was kept at the Atlantic port Cherbourg for two days after it landed Oct. 8, then transported 1,200 km (745 mi.) by truck down highways and through cities such as Nantes, Rennes, and Toulouse.
The plutonium is now being treated at the nuclear research center Cadarache in Provence region, 70 km (43 mi.) from the Mediterranean city Marseille. This center had to be closed last year due to seismic risks.
The plutonium will be treated over several months. It will be converted into mixed oxide fuel (MOX), a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides from older nuclear weapons. After treatment, the MOX is placed into rods to be used in nuclear power stations.
The ship that brought the plutonium was escorted by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ship. On its road journey through France, it was heavily protected by army helicopters and ground troops, especially after French environmental activists denounced the consignment as extremely dangerous.
Environmental organizations including Greenpeace and the Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire (Get Rid of Nuclear Power), a coalition of some 700 French environmental organizations, had warned that such transport would be a perfect target for a terrorist attack, and that it represents a danger by the mere risk of a traffic accident.
Greenpeace nuclear expert Yannick Rousselet told IPS that "the impressive security apparatus put in place by the French government to protect the U.S. plutonium confirms the serious threats that hang upon such type of nuclear material and transport."
As if to confirm the warnings of Greenpeace and other environmental organizations, a consignment of highly radioactive nuclear material was involved in a traffic accident Oct. 5. A truck transporting 4.5 kg of uranium was accidentally hit by another truck on a highway some 150 km (93 mi.) south from Paris.
The uranium came from the German nuclear facility at Lingen in Lower Saxony, and was being carried to the French nuclear power station at Blayais near Bordeaux, some 900 km (560 mi.) southwest of Paris. The truck carrying the uranium was not protected. Police authorities said the accident did not provoke any risk for public health, and no nuclear pollution was emitted.
Several environmental scientists pointed to the dangers of handling material such as plutonium. "Plutonium needs some 24,000 years to reduce its radioactivity by half," José Daguillon, a physician at the French National Center for Scientific Research told IPS. "It takes one microgram of plutonium to generate mortal doses."
Plutonium is the most toxic invention humankind has ever produced, Daguillon said. "It represents a scandalous heritage that we are leaving for generations to come for many centuries."
The U.S. plutonium to be treated in France comes from nuclear weapons dismantled under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I and II), which provide for reduction of nuclear weapons in the United States and in Russia and other former Soviet republics.
"We’re trying to reduce the amount of nuclear weapons in the world," Bryan Wilkes, a spokesperson at the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration said late September. "We’re trying to get rid of this material that you could use once again in a nuclear weapon or for other types of purposes that terrorists could probably come up with, and convert it to MOX fuel and burn it up in nuclear power reactors," Wilkes added.
The U.S. government has no plants that could transform plutonium into MOX. Washington took up services offered by the French state-owned AREVA, the world’s biggest nuclear services provider.
Hundreds of tons of nuclear waste, including uranium and plutonium from all over the world, from are treated at the AREVA installations at the nuclear research center Cadarache or at the recycling plant La Hague on the northwestern coast of Normandy.
France is also the leading producer of MOX, with some 200 tons production planned for 2005. The total world production is expected to be some 475 tons a year.
AREVA said recycling the U.S. plutonium would be a French contribution to world peace, and disposed of in the best way of dealing with nuclear waste. In a statement titled "MOX for Peace," the company said the plutonium will be used to fabricate fuel rods over a four-month period. The fuel will be delivered to the United States in early 2005, it said.
Stéphane Lhomme, director of "Get Rid of Nuclear Power," called AREVA’s arguments "rubbish." Lhomme told IPS that "one of the leading state institutions within AREVA is the French state Commission for Atomic Energy, the organization that furnishes the French military with the plutonium necessary to produce nuclear weapons."
He said AREVA is "one of the leading producers of plutonium and of other nuclear waste, which represents a deadly heritage for the future generations." The only real remedy for this poison is "to stop this crazy irresponsible industry," Lhomme said.
The French Authority of Nuclear Security (ASN, after its French name), secured closure of the plutonium research center at Cadarache last year after a 10-year investigation. The ASN found in a report produced in 2002 that the Cadarache center "is a relatively old installation, located near the fault of the Endurance, seismically active."
Due to this vulnerability "an important seism could affect . . . Cadarache," the ASN said in its report. It said it therefore considers "the long-term functioning of this installation as unacceptable."
This closure was supposed to be definitive, "but now AREVA claims that the closure refers only to commercial production, whatever that may mean," Lhomme said. AREVA apparently believes that an accident at Cadarache would less dangerous if it were to happen under "non-commercial" circumstances, he said.
AREVA is billing the U.S. government $360 million for the "non-commercial" recycling of its plutonium.