You are here

AREVA'S MOX transport: a traveling security threat

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Rianne Teule, Greenpeace International Nuclear Campaigner

About 1.8 tons of plutonium in Mixed-Oxide (MOX) fuel, enough to make 225 nuclear weapons, left the French port of Cherbourg on March 5, to travel to Japan via the Cape of Good Hope and the southwest Pacific Ocean. It is due to arrive in Japanese waters by late-May, according to Areva. This shipment represents an immediate risk of contamination to coastal communities along the route should anything go wrong. The shipment is vulnerable to accident and terrorist attack and stands as a reminder to all governments along the route of the unacceptable risks nuclear energy poses to the world.

The dangerous transport is another attempt of the dying industry to survive. As the French nuclear industry and President Sarkozy aggressively try to sell the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), the latest in nuclear reactors, under the false premise of a climate change solution, they conveniently ignore the very real dangers associated with it, including health risks and potential terrorist attack. EPR reactors are meant to run on 50-100% MOX fuel.

Japan has been trying to use MOX in their nuclear reactors for more than ten years; and have repeatedly failed.  The first shipment to Japan in 1999 ended in fiasco after the producer, UK state company British Nuclear Fuels, admitted it had deliberately falsified vital quality control safety data. After an 18,000-mile voyage, the rejected fuel was shipped back to the UK. Two more cargoes, one delivered in 1999, the other in 2001, were opposed by local citizens and regional governments. Both shipments remain in storage with no prospect that they will ever be used.

There is plenty of evidence showing that the containers used to transport the MOX are not strong enough to withstand serious accidents or terrorist attack. Risk of fire is just one example, the containers are only tested over a few hours, but fires on board ships can last much longer (days or even weeks). Once MOX fuel disperses it poses a grave threat to public health and the environment.

Referring to a plutonium shipment in 2002, the Government of Antigua and Barbuda stated "our small states are fearful that a deliberate act of terror aimed at those ships may bring an end to our very existence. This is not fanciful or farfetched fiction."
Considering all this, it is little wonder that plutonium and MOX shipments have been opposed by dozens of governments and their citizens, since they started.

Areva denying proliferation risks

On the anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entering into force, the trade in nuclear bomb grade material between France and Japan seriously jeopardises the international non-proliferation regime. As a result of civil nuclear programmes, the world now has more weapons usable plutonium in so-called commercial use than in all nuclear weapons arsenals put together.

In an March 2, open letter to Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the IAEA, Greenpeace states:

Our specific concerns are Areva’s misrepresentation of the proliferation threat posed bycommercial plutonium contained in this and other MOX fuel. They appear dangerously confused or deliberately denying the inherent proliferation risks of the Japanese plutonium MOX fuel. Specifically Areva (Henri Jacques Neau, Director of Transport) went on record March 1 saying: “It is impossible to make a nuclear weapon as suggested by Greenpeace. Here you must be clear, this MOX does not have any interest for any people to make a nuclear weapon from it. There is no interest in the diversion of this material. We have this level of protection, because the MOX fuel contains plutonium. Everything that contains plutonium must have a protective measure,”

Late February following an interview with French news agency, AFP, an industrial source (most likely Areva) was cited in the article stating that, "To make a bomb” out of MOX, “you would first need an installation in order to separate the plutonium from the uranium. And still, the result would only be plutonium of "civil" quality and not military quality," affirmed this source.

These statements are clearly misleading, stating as it does there is a distinction between civil and military grade plutonium. This, as you are aware is not the formal position of the IAEA, which classifies commercial plutonium MOX fuel as Category 1 nuclear material, requiring the highest level of security protection. As the IAEA safeguards glossary states, conversion of MOX fuel or powder to finished plutonium (metal) is of the order of 1-3 weeks.

Greenpeace is long used to Japanese nuclear industry denials that reactor-grade plutonium is a proliferation threat, and that it cannot be used to make nuclear weapons. However, you will be aware that as long ago as 1990 your predecessor Hans Blix confirmed to the Nuclear Control Institute that the IAEA does not dispute that reactor-grade plutonium can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Now we have denials by the nuclear industry including an explicit denial by Areva, which we believe is in defiance of both the IAEA classification of reactor grade plutonium and MOX fuel, as well as senior nuclear weapons scientists and U.S. government departments, including the Department of Energy.

You will be aware that the U.S. Department of Energy first briefed Japan and other states on the proliferation risks from commercial reprocessing, reactor grade plutonium and MOX fuel more than 30 years ago.

Sources: Greenpeace Press release, 6 March 2009 / Letter to ElBaradei, 2 March 2009 which can be found at:
Contact: Rianne Teule, Greenpeace International Nuclear Campaigner
Tel:  +31 650 640 961