PROTEST BANNER IN FRANCE
Claude Paris  /  AP
Greenpeace activists hung this banner at a tunnel leading to the Cadarache nuclear plant in southeastern France, where 308 pounds of U.S. military-grade plutonium will be converted into a commercial fuel.
msnbc.com news services
updated 10/8/2004 3:13:21 PM ET 2004-10-08T19:13:21

A French company in charge of converting radioactive U.S. military material into a commercial fuel says the shipment of plutonium from the United States arrived at a French factory as planned Friday.

The shipment was transported across France by a heavily guarded truck convoy after arriving at a French seaport Wednesday. The country has gotten shipments of radioactive material in the past to convert into fuel, but this is the first time weapons-grade plutonium is involved.

On Thursday, helicopters circled over the trucks, armed guards were placed on crossroads, and police were guarding all bridges on the convoy’s almost 660-mile route to the Cadarache recycling plant in southeastern France.

About 100 protesters demonstrated near Cadarache with a large banner declaring: “Nuclear kills the future.” A few other people protested from a distance as the convoy made its way through France but there were no disturbances.

Environmental activists say such shipments are vulnerable to a terrorist attack. “This is a high-risk strategy being played by the nuclear industry with the lives of millions of people,” said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International.

French state-owned nuclear energy firm Areva, whose Cogema unit will recycle the plutonium into nuclear fuel, said the shipment was safe.

“The plutonium ... is shipped in casks that comply with the regulation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Its transport is the object of the strongest safety and security measures,” Areva said in a statement.

Nuclear energy officials say the aim of the transport is to do what Greenpeace wants -- destroy deadly nuclear material.

The plutonium will be recycled into nuclear fuel at Cadarache. This will then be shipped back to the United States for use in an electricity-generating reactor.

It is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s international non-proliferation program to turn plutonium from “excess” nuclear warheads into mixed-oxide (MOX) plutonium-uranium enriched fuel.

The delivery is part of a post-Cold War agreement between the United States and Russia to get rid of plutonium from excess nuclear warheads.

A French court ruling had barred protesters from going within 100 meters of the shipment. 


First weapons-grade shipment
Radioactive material has been shipped to France in the past for conversion into MOX fuel, but this is the first time weapons-grade plutonium is being used.

The U.S. portion of the project is worth $250 million to $300 million to French state-run nuclear company Areva, which will start by turning 300 pounds of plutonium into MOX, a mixture of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide.

The environmental organization Greenpeace opposes the use of MOX to run reactors, saying it becomes hotter and more radioactive than the enriched uranium used to fuel most reactors.

The U.S. Energy Department must ship the plutonium overseas for conversion because there isn’t a plant in the United States that can do it.

The MOX is to be shipped back to the United States in early 2005 for burning at South Carolina’s Catawba Nuclear Station. Special security measures will be in place for that trip, too.

After this first test run, U.S. officials plan to build a MOX factory with French help at the Savannah River nuclear site, near Aiken, S.C., to dispose of the rest of the plutonium the United States agreed to destroy. Another MOX factory would be built, likely with Areva help, in Russia.

“Everyone is getting the payoff in this in that we’re reducing and getting rid of dangerous material that could be used to make thousands of nuclear weapons,” said Bryan Wilkes of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington.

“We’re confident this material will be fully protected every step of the way,” he added. The armed ships have “a specialized guard force. The people that are doing this have a lot of experience doing this. They’re not shipping oranges.”

An alternative to using French technology would have been to bury the plutonium — a solution environmentalists also find troubling.

MOX is made only in France and Britain, with France having most of the market. Some 80 percent of France’s electricity is generated by nuclear reactors — 20 of them using MOX. In the United States, there are no reactors that currently run on MOX and U.S. reactors will have to be adapted to use the fuel.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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