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An Invitation to Terrorists? U.S. To Ship Over 300 Pounds of Weapons-Grade Plutonium Across Atlantic

StorySeptember 17, 2004
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Greenpeace has launched a campaign to stop a controversial shipment that contains enough plutonium to make up to 50 nuclear weapons. While the government hasn’t done a threat or environmental assessment of the trip, the Department of Homeland Security has admitted it has conducted assessments of protest groups opposed to the shipment. [includes rush transcript]

We go to South Carolina for a story that has received almost no attention by the national media. It involves the Department of Homeland Security. Our nation’s ports. Nuclear weapons. And the environment.

In an unprecedented trip, two British ships are preparing to carry some 300 pounds of pure weapons-grade plutonium from Charleston South Carolina across the Atlantic to France.

The U.S. government claims the trip is necessary in the name of national security. The plutonium is being sent to France where it will be made into mixide oxide or MOX fuel and then returned to the United States. The process will turn uranium into a fuel usable in nuclear power plants. A spokesperson for the Department of Energy said the whole purpose of the MOX program is to get rid of nuclear weapons.

But Greenpeace and local environmental groups are warning the trip far is too risky.

Texas Congressman Jim Turner recently warned that the theft of the plutonium would be "catastrophic". Enough plutonium is being shipped to make up to 50 nuclear weapons.

And the Department of Homeland Security has admitted it has conducted neither an Environmental Impact Statement nor a formal threat assessment on the shipment.

But the Department has revealed that it has been keeping close watch on environmental groups opposed to the trip.

In a letter to Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a Department of Homeland Security official admitted the agency had conducted a "field intelligence report concerning environmental activist groups and their potential to impact this shipment." [Read Letter (PDF)]

Although this story has been ignored by the national media, protests have been occurring in Charleston South Carolina and in France. Yesterday French police arrested 11 Greenpeace activists after they entered the military arsenal in Normandy. In South Carolina, activists have been camped out along the Charleston shore awaiting the arrivial of the two British ships, the Pacific Pintail and the Pacific Teal.

We go to Charleston South Carolina to speak with Tom Clements, senior adviser to Greenpeace International’s Nuclear Campaign.

We contacted the Department of Homeland Security and the National Nuclear Security Administration to invite them on the program but they did not return our calls.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Charleston, South Carolina, to speak with Tom Clements, senior advisor to Greenpeace International’s Nuclear Campaign. Welcome to Democracy Now!

TOM CLEMENTS: Thanks very much. Glad to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So talk about how this whole controversial shipment, how you learned of it, how it all began.

TOM CLEMENTS: This is a shipment being conducted by the Department of Energy, and they needed an export license to do it. They applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and we intervened against that export license back in November. There was a lot of back and forth between us and D.O.E., but eventually, as they always do, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ended up granting the export license, and that set the wheels moving for these ships to head over here. They departed two weeks ago today as a matter of fact. They’re a little bit late in arriving, but they are coming to the Charleston Naval Weapons Station to pick up the weapons grade plutonium which has been brought all the way across the country from the Los Alamos National Lab. We were not able to stop it by any legal or political process so far. So, right now, we’re just vigilling for their arrival, and there have been protests in Charleston as you mentioned.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom, explain exactly what your concerns are.

TOM CLEMENTS: Primarily, they’re from an environmental and safety perspective, as well as a nuclear non-proliferation perspective. The Department of Energy, as you mentioned, they did not prepare any kind of environmental impact statement on this shipment. The people here in Charleston are concerned about that. They have formed a group called Citizens Against Plutonium. I would mention that that is website is We still insist they should not conduct this shipment without an environmental impact statement. The public just hasn’t had the right to comment on it whatsoever. And the second main reason we’re concerned about it is from nuclear non-proliferations perspective. This basically sends a signal internationally that it’s okay to engage in commerce and plutonium. While the U.S. is telling the rest of the world this is a bad thing to do, they’re setting the example that actually, it’s in fact a good thing to ship plutonium around the world and handle it and process it and make nuclear fuel out of it. We want to see plutonium anywhere, in all countries, removed from commerce and secured and managed as nuclear waste. There’s a vast amount of plutonium, both weapons plutonium around the world and civilian plutonium, and it’s mostly the western countries and Japan that are accumulating these vast stock piles. They really have not been impeded in the past couple of years, despite all the rhetoric about halting nuclear weapons proliferation.

AMY GOODMAN: Why does this have to go to France and back again?

TOM CLEMENTS: They’re claiming they’re doing to this to get rid of weapons plutonium. We say they can mix it with existing high level waste and vitrify it or immobilize it in a glass form. What this is doing, where they would ship the material to Cherbourg, France, on the coast and then it would be taken about 700 miles to a mixed oxide plant in southern France and made into experimental plutonium fuel. Some of this is used with a different plutonium in Europe. Although it’s a very expensive program and it’s dangerous to use this kind of material inside a reactor. Then they would ship the material, the MOX fuel, for nuclear fuel assemblies back to Cherbourg over land. And we feel the shipments in France of plutonium are highly vulnerable. If people go to you can see that Greenpeace has tracked these shipments all over France. They’re highly vulnerable to attack and theft along the route. Once it’s in Cherbourg, it will be sent back to Charleston and then taken to a reactor south of Charlotte, North Carolina, the Catawba Reactor, for two years of testing. And we just think that this whole shipment just exemplifies that it’s just crazy to be shipping plutonium around the world and the shipments should be canceled.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tom Clements, the senior adviser to Greenpeace International’s Nuclear Campaign about this controversial shipment of hundreds of pounds of plutonium from South Carolina to France, and back now. We have been getting a lot of news from the South about the hurricane, Hurricane Ivan. Does this play in in any way?

TOM CLEMENTS: Well, you know, we have another one, Jean, that’s headed basically right towards Charleston. This is another problem with the shipment. They have shown their disregard for shipping materials at exactly the worst time of year. It’s the height of the hurricane season. This just reflects the arrogance of the Department of Energy in pushing forward with this program. This is just one of the reasons it shouldn’t go forward. The two ships that you mentioned are probably just offshore now. We don’t know exactly why they have been delayed coming in. It could be because of the hurricane, Ivan, or the one that’s coming. But I suspect that the reason that they have not come in to pick up the plutonium is the facility in France, to which they’re shipping it, had a plutonium incident about ten days ago. Two workers were contaminated and a number of the rooms inside the plant were also contaminated. And I’m guessing that they’re waiting to see what the results or review of the accident are before they push forward with this. We met with the coast guard captain here, and he asked us if the Department of Energy was aware of this incident, and I’m sure they are by now, but the worst thing is to ship the material out and then have to ship it back and endure the security and safety risks that it poses.

AMY GOODMAN: Massachusetts Congress member Ed Markey wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, asking for explanations. And the department did write back. Can you explain their answers?

TOM CLEMENTS: Well, they basically dodged answering any questions from Representative Markey or Representative Turner, who is the top democrat on the Homeland Security Committee of the House. They basically said we’re going forward with this. Security on it is going to be good. They did admit that’s no environmental impact statement as you said earlier. They didn’t perform a threat assessment, which I thought that there was a terrorist lurking behind every tree, or that’s what you hear from the U.S. government. But also as you said, they investigated us, and they know that Greenpeace is not a threat against these shipments. We have protested against them and the local people here have clearly stated they just want to observe the ships, and make a comment. So, what they have told Representative Markey is that their priorities are totally backwards. The department insisted to push forward with this, because they are desperate to get this program underway. It’s bogged down in congress. The funding for the MOX Program here is really in question now. It’s up in the air if this whole plutonium program is going to go forward. Of course, we’re working to stop it, because we think it’s a risk from a safety and non-proliferation perspective.

AMY GOODMAN: We called the Department of Homeland Security and the National Nuclear Security Administration. They did not return our calls. Tom Clements, I want to thank you for being with us. What you are calling on people to do in this country? In France, we know people are already protesting.

TOM CLEMENTS: Yeah, there was a big protest mounted in France when the ships arrived, about 12 days after departure. I would encourage people to get in contact with their senators, which are either on the Armed Services or Intelligence Committee and demand right now that this not go forward. I think there’s time still to stop it, but it’s going to take some political pressure. Also, people can give me a call to discuss it further, if I can give me number out, I would do that. Is that okay?

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll put it on the website.


AMY GOODMAN: Okay. Tom Clements, thank you very much for being with us. Tom Clements, senior adviser to Greenpeace International Nuclear Campaign.

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