Amidst South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges’ threats to lie down in front of the trailer trucks to prevent them from entering his state, the Department of Energy (DOE) is currently shipping weapons-grade plutonium across the country from Rocky Flats, Colo., to Savannah River, S.C. At the same time, Congress approved a Bush plan to ship the nation’s nuclear waste, starting in 2010, from the 100-some reactors around the country to Yucca Mountain, Nev.

Tri-Valley CARE (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) monitors the cleanup of contamination resulting from the activities of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), a weapons lab just east of San Francisco. LLNL was slated to receive some plutonium from Rocky Flats as well. But Tri-Valley discovered a DOE scheme through the Freedom of Information Act.

“We have created a substance that will be hazardous for longer than human history,” Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CARE, told the World in a recent phone interview. It will take Plutonium 239 240,000 years to become a “decayed substance,” compared to the 100,000 years since the evolution of Homo sapiens. Plutonium is a totally man-made substance created for military weapons and nuclear reactors.

And, Kelley said, “There is no safe method for storage or disposal.” The best that can be done is to keep it close to the point of production, above ground and monitored, since no container will last 240,000 years, she said.

Some can be safely stored as is, some has to be immobilized, in a solid hockey-puck-like form. Safeguarding it will have to be handed down from generation to generation, Kelley said, until science comes up with a better method.

Tri-Valley found that the 45-gallon drums that were going to be used to ship the plutonium couldn’t pass a normal highway crash test. DOE’s own engineers confirmed this.

Tri-Valley sued under the National Environmental Policy Act and won, May 15. DOE reversed its decision. It could no longer use the faulty containers. DOE then decided it wouldn’t ship plutonium to LLNL, just to Savannah River.

The plutonium headed to South Carolina will be made into mixed oxide fuel (MOX), the most expensive and most hazardous fuel, according to Kelley. “It’s very popular with the Bush administration because in essence, it is a free subsidy to the nuclear energy industry,” she said.

On July 5, Greenpeace activists were arrested in Australia for protesting the shipping of plutonium from Japan to Britain, stating that “it is absolutely irresponsible and unjustified to shift plutonium nuclear fuel halfway around the world.”

The ship left Japan on July 4, with a cargo of MOX, being returned to the state-owned British Nuclear Fuels because they had falsified safety data. The original shipment to Japan was widely criticized by environmental groups and government officials in Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific Island nations.

Part of the solution to the problem of shipping these harmful substances, Kelley said, is that “We can start by not making any more!”

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org

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