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Too much of a bad thing? World awash with waste plutonium via Ecologist

As worldwide stocks of plutonium increase, lightly-armed British ships are about to carry an initial 330kg of the nuclear bomb metal for ‘safekeeping’ in the US, writes Paul Brown. But it’s only the tip of a global ‘plutonium mountain’ of hundreds of tonnes nuclear power’s most hazardous waste product.

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Sent to the US for safekeeping

The shipment of plutonium from Japan to the US falls under the US-led Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), or Material Management & Minimisation (M3) programme, whereby weapons-useable material such as plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU) is removed from facilities worldwide for safekeeping in the US.

The cargo to be loaded onto the two UK ships in Japan consists of some 331kg of plutonium from Japan’s Tokai Research Establishment.

This plutonium – a substantial fraction of which was supplied to Japan by the UK decades ago for ‘experimental purposes’ in Tokai’s Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) facility – is described by the US Department of Energy (DOE) as “posing a potential threat to national security, being susceptible to use in an improvised nuclear device, and presenting a high risk of theft or diversion”. Or, as another US expert put it, “sufficient to make up to 40 nuclear bombs”.

Under the US-led programme, the plutonium will be transported from Japan to the US port of Charleston and onwards to the Savannah River site in South Carolina.

Tom Clements, director of the public interest group Savannah River Site Watch, has condemned this import of plutonium as a material that will simply be stranded at the site, with no clear disposition path out of South Carolina. He sees it as further evidence that Savannah River is being used as a dumping ground for an extensive range of international nuclear waste.

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From DOE documents, this shipment will be the first of a number of planned shipments for what is referred to as ‘Gap Material Plutonium‘ – weapons-useable materials that are not covered under other US or Russian programmes.

In total, the DOE plans to import up to 900kg of ‘at risk’ plutonium – currently held in seven countries – via 12 shipments over seven years. Other materials include stocks of HEU – the most highly enriched plutonium (to 93%), also being supplied to Japan by the UK.

The voyage from Barrow to Japan takes about six weeks, and a further seven weeks from Japan to Savannah River – use of the Panama Canal having been ruled out by the DOE in its documents on the shipment. Previously, the countries near the canal have objected to nuclear transport in their territorial waters.

Read more at Too much of a bad thing? World awash with waste plutonium

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