US plutonium reaches French plant

Friday, October 8, 2004

A controversial shipment of US weapons-grade plutonium has reached a processing plant in southern France.

Several dozen anti-nuclear protesters met the convoy on arrival at the plant in Cadarache. They said the plutonium was vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The 125kg consignment was heavily guarded on its journey across France.

The state-owned firm which will reprocess it - Areva - insists it is safe and will be converted into fuel to generate electricity commercially.

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

Tight security

The plutonium has been in transit since two British-registered ships left South Carolina last month and delivered it to Cherbourg in northern France. It was then loaded onto lorries and driven to the plant in nearby La Hague for overnight storage before being taken to Cadarache.

Police guarded all the bridges along the route, while armed guards accompanied the convoy and helicopters hovered overhead.

"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.

A French court has ruled that any protester who goes within 100 metres of the shipment faces a 75,000 euro fine.

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

Cogema will process the material and convert it into mixed oxide nuclear fuel (MOX), which will then be shipped back to the US for civilian use.

The US Department of Energy says the plutonium has to be shipped overseas because there is no plant capable of carrying out the conversion process in the US.

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