Originally created 08/08/03

Greenpeace challenges plutonium shipping plan



Environmentalists opposed to the construction of a nuclear fuel facility at Savannah River Site said Thursday that plans by the government to ship plutonium to Europe in order to speed up the testing process are unsafe.

The Department of Energy wants to use nuclear facilities in France or Belgium to build four mixed-oxide fuel cells, which will likely require plutonium from the United States.

The same sort of cells are supposed to be made at SRS one day to run energy-providing nuclear reactors in North Carolina and upstate South Carolina.

Tom Clements, of Greenpeace International in Washington, said that moving the radioactive plutonium across the Atlantic is unsafe and that the group would try to block the action.

"We think the reprocessing of plutonium should stop," he said. "It's dirty and dangerous and very expensive. The plutonium should be treated as high-level waste."

One site being considered by the DOE, Cadarache, France, isn't fit to process the plutonium because of safety problems associated with seismic activity nearby, Mr. Clements said.

A decision on where the fuel cell will be assembled is expected soon, he added.

The United States does not have a facility that can convert plutonium and combine it with uranium to form an energy-producing fuel cell, which are typically 15 feet high and weigh about 1,500 pounds. The government would rather convert the plutonium than store it, which is environmentally hazardous and leaves it susceptible to theft by terrorists, industry experts said.

Duke Energy, the company that is helping build the mixed-oxide facility at SRS, wants four fuel cells to begin testing the process now at its nuclear facilities in Catawba, S.C., and McGuire, N.C., said Rose Cummings, a spokeswoman for the company.

The Savannah River Site isn't scheduled to start construction on a similar facility until 2008, and it could take more than four years to test the process, Ms. Cummings said.

"The DOE moves sensitive nuclear material around the country every day, and they have an impeccable record," she said. "It would be treated in the most sensitive manner."

It would take as many as 1,000 people to build the mixed-oxide plant at SRS and about 400 people to run it, a DOE spokesman said.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895. or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.