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Op-Ed: Secretive mission bringing part of Japan’s plutonium to U.S.

As the world’s stockpiles of plutonium continue to increase, in the early morning hours of January 19, two armed ships, the Barrow ships Pacific Egret and Pacific Heron, moved from the Ramsden Dock nuclear terminal, headed on a round-the-world voyage to Japan.

The two ships are nuclear fuel carriers fitted with naval cannon on their decks. They are operated by Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd, which ultimately is owned by the British government. On board both ships are heavily armed members of a security squad provided by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary’s Strategic Escort Group.

Their mission is secretive and controversial, and with good reason. Once the ships get to Japan, they will be loading some 331 kilograms (730 pounds) of highly fissionable and toxic plutonium. The amount is small, considering that Japan has at least 47 tons of the stuff stored at the Nuclear Science Research Institute northeast of Tokyo, according to a comment in the Japan Today.

Once loaded, the two ships will make their way to the U.S. port of Charleston and onwards to the Savannah River site in South Carolina, says EcoWatch. Digital Journal readers may remember the Savannah River Site was featured in a story about antibiotic-resistant bacteria in Dec. 2015. The site is owned by the Department of Energy and has been closed to the public for some time.

Plutonium sent to U.S. for safekeeping
The shipment of plutonium from Japan to the U.S. falls under the U.S.-led Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), or Material Management & Minimisation (M3) program. Apparently, the U.S. has agreed to keep the world’s extra weapons-usable plutonium safe on our shores, although I’m sure they didn’t bother asking anyone if it was alright.

The Ecologist notes that the U.S. Department of Energy describes the reasoning behind having the plutonium brought to the U.S., saying there is the potential of the plutonium “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.”

Opposition to controversial shipment of plutonium
Opposition to the movement of plutonium to the U.S. has been widespread. In the UK, a group called Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) has been tracking the movement of plutonium for years. A spokesman for CORE, Martin Forwood, said: “The practice of shipping this plutonium to the US as a safeguard is completely undermined by deliberately exposing this prime terrorist material to a lengthy sea transport, during which it will face everyday maritime risks and targeting by those with hostile intentions. We see this as wholly unnecessary and a significant security threat in today’s volatile and unpredictable world.”
Director Tom Clements of the special interest group, Savannah River Site, said the group condemns the use of the Savannah River Site as a “dumping ground” because the material will be stranded at the site no clear disposition path out of South Carolina.

The South Carolina site is already being used as a dump for radioactive material from around the world. Based on DOE documents, this shipment is only one of a number of planned shipments in what is called “Gap Material Plutonium,” or in other words, weapons-usable material not covered under any U.S. or Russian programs.

Actually, the U.S. plans to import over 900 kilograms of what the DOE calls “at risk” plutonium being held in seven countries, via 12 shipments over the next seven years. Other materials also include HEU, the most highly-enriched plutonium (up to 30 percent) provided to Japan by the UK.

With all the secretive goings on, the DOE wasn’t able to use the Panama Canal, though, so the ships will have to take the long way around the globe, six weeks from Britain to Japan, and seven weeks to the U.S. from Japan. Believe it or not, the canal countries have objected to the transport of nuclear materials within their territorial waters.

What is more interesting is that other than a few environmental websites, the story was apparently overlooked by mainstream media outlets. Makes a person wonder what else we aren’t being told.

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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