New York Times
October 5, 2004

U.S. Nuclear Cargo Draws Protests in France


PARIS, Oct. 4 - France is poised to take possession of 300 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium from the United States for reprocessing into fuel, an operation that its opponents contend creates a risk of nuclear terrorism.

Two vessels carrying the volatile cargo from South Carolina were expected to dock secretly at a secure area of the French port of Cherbourg as early as Monday night.

From there, the cargo - enough to make 20 nuclear bombs - is to be taken to a secure plant at nearby La Hague. It will then be loaded onto armored, unmarked trucks and escorted by French security forces to a factory 700 miles away at the southeastern town of Cadarache, where it will be turned into fuel for nuclear reactors.

The project to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel was initiated by President Bill Clinton with an agreement with Russia in September 2000 to neutralize 34 tons of plutonium from American and Russian weapons dating from the cold war.

But that was before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks heightened concerns about the risks of other terrorist attacks, even nuclear-related terrorism. Islamic militants have openly expressed their desire to secure material to make a nuclear weapon, and have even discussed stealing or attacking plutonium shipments in France. Critics say it would be far wiser merely to bury the nuclear material in the United States than to ship it long distances for reprocessing.

For France, money is the main motive for this operation. Areva, the state-owned giant nuclear power company, will fabricate the plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel rods and ship them back to the United States. If the process goes well, Areva will build a fabrication plant in South Carolina. The entire deal could be worth more than $250 million, an Areva official said.

For the United States, the deal is a convenient way to get another country to reprocess the fuel for nonmilitary uses, which it lacks the technology to do itself. It is the first time the United States is sending weapons-grade material abroad.

It is also a remarkable display of Franco-American cooperation at a time when President Bush continues to criticize France for its opposition to the American-led war in Iraq.

Mr. Bush said Friday at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania that "the use of troops to defend America must never be subject to the veto of a country like France." The remark prompted France to register an official protest with the White House, French officials said.

By contrast, France's economy minister - and a presidential hopeful - Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday described the atmosphere between the United States and France as "more serene" after he left a meeting in Washington with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Nonproliferation and environmental experts say transporting weapons-usable nuclear material is an unnecessarily risky operation.

"Here the United States is telling the whole world that the greatest threat to our security is nuclear terrorism and we must keep nuclear-weapon material out of hands of terrorists," said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington. "And here we are shipping this stuff around for no good reason. Just dispose of it - embed it in concrete, bury it."

Mr. Milhollin and other nonproliferation and environmental experts contend that even if the plutonium is well guarded by troops, it could be hijacked or diverted by terrorists or criminals.

The transport of the fabricated mixed oxide fuel rods back to the United States will also be unsafe, because they will still contain usable plutonium that could be extracted later, Mr. Milhollin said.

Antinuclear activists have gathered at Cherbourg in recent days to protest the imminent arrival of the two British-registered vessels carrying the plutonium sent by the National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the Energy Department.

On Sunday, the French police arrested three activists with the environmental group Greenpeace who were in a flotilla protesting the shipment. One was Eugène Riguidel, a French round-the-world yachting champion whose sailboat was impounded by the police. The protesters were released Monday.

Greenpeace charges that carrying the plutonium on a long overland trip constitutes a "considerable" risk, and that the cargo's containers could be blasted open with shoulder-launched rockets.

To prove the vulnerability of such shipments, Greenpeace has tracked convoys and posted license plates and itineraries on its Web site. In February 2003, the organization blocked a convoy carrying about 300 pounds of plutonium in the eastern French city of Chalon-sur-Saône.

But the American and French governments, as well as Areva, a giant holding company created in 2001 to consolidate the country's nuclear activities, have rejected charges that the operation is unsafe.

France has long been a depository and fabrication center for spent nuclear fuel and plutonium from foreign sources, including Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Japan.

"Areva has traveled more than one million kilometers for the past 15 years without a radiological incident," said Patrick Germain, an Areva spokesman.

In its licensing submissions before the operation was approved, the Energy Department called the French transportation methods "comparable to those used in the U.S. for land transportation."

But opponents of the practice say that the transport of weapons-usable plutonium is unsafe in the United States as well.

The clash between the advocates and opponents of the current operation underscores the tension between two geo-strategic goals: a determination by the United States after the cold war that American and Russian stockpiles of military-grade plutonium should be reduced, and the concern after the Sept. 11 attacks about protecting the world against nuclear terrorism.

In a letter to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham in August, Representative Jim Turner of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, lauded the agreement between the United States and Russia, but added, "In the post-Sept. 11 environment, it is also crucial to ensure that the transportation of special nuclear materials is adequately secured from theft or diversion by terrorists."

In defending the operation, Hervé Ladsous, the spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, described it as a nonproliferation initiative, saying, "France brings its support to American and Russian efforts to reduce their military plutonium declared in excess of their defense needs."


Ariane Bernard contributed reporting for this article.