updated 10/10/2003 3:30:24 AM ET 2003-10-10T07:30:24

The government has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an export license to ship 300 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium to France for processing into reactor fuel, prompting criticism from nuclear nonproliferation groups.

THE PLUTONIUM SHIPMENTS are part of a long-range plan to dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium in the government’s nuclear weapons program by turning it into a mixed oxide fuel for use in commercial U.S. reactors.

The plan calls for building a plant in South Carolina to process the plutonium. In the meantime, the 300 pounds of plutonium powder — enough, critics say, for 50 or more nuclear weapons — must be shipped to France for processing so it can be used in a commercial reactor test run in 2005, officials said.

The Energy Department, in its request to the NRC for an export license, said the plutonium will be shipped across the country from the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico to a Navy base at Charleston, S.C., and by a special armed and escorted ship to France.

The shipments are to occur sometime next year.

Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis rejected suggestions by critics of the program that the shipments pose a terrorist risk. “We will have safe and secure transport for any plutonium that we ship,” Davis said. “Charleston and federal DOE officials are capable of making sure the shipments arrive safe and secure.”

Davis said the department is committed to the plutonium disposition program, which is being conducted in conjunction with a similar effort in Russia. He said the reactor test runs, expected to begin in 2005, are an essential part of the program.

CRITICS SEE SAFETY RISK

But some nonproliferation groups have long opposed using converted plutonium in commercial power reactors, maintaining that it erases the separation of military and commercial nuclear programs and adds to the chance that some plutonium might be diverted improperly.

The shipments to Europe of some 300 pounds of plutonium in powder form as planned by the Energy Department “presents an unacceptable proliferation and safety risk and should be canceled,” said Tom Clements, a nuclear materials expert working for Greenpeace International.

While the department has openly discussed its plans to convert excess weapons-grade plutonium to so-called MOX fuel and burn it in commercial power reactors, the request for an export license was not publicized.

The application was placed quietly on the NRC’s Web site this week and first disclosed Thursday by Greenpeace, the environmental advocacy group that has strongly protested nuclear waste reprocessing in Europe and opposes the U.S. government’s plutonium disposal program.

The United States is sending “a message ... that commerce in weapons plutonium is acceptable,” said Clements.

FUEL FOR COMMERCIAL REACTORS

Under a U.S. agreement with Russia, both countries planned to dispose of 34 tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium by turning it into MOX fuel. Several utilities in the United States have agreed to use the converted fuel, which once processed is no longer usable for weapons, in commercial reactors.

Duke Energy plans the first reactor test runs using MOX fuel assemblies at its Catawba reactor south of Charlotte, N.C., over a period of three years, beginning in 2005.

The fuel used for those tests is coming from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. It will be shipped across country to the Charleston Naval Weapons Station and then by ship to the port at Cherbourg, France. From there the plutonium will be taken to the Cadarache processing facility in southern France to be processed into MOX fuel assemblies and then returned to the United States, according to the Energy Department license applications.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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