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Germany’s Unwanted Plutonium Going To Britain

November 18, 1992

BERLIN (AP) _ Amid the flap over a shipment of plutonium from France to Japan by sea, Germany has been quietly flying an unwanted stock of the deadly material to Scotland, officials said Wednesday.

A spokesman at the Dounreay fast-breeder reactor in Scotland, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the shipments resulted from an agreement in mid- 1991. Neither he nor a German official could say when the shipments began.

Plutonium is highly poisonous and also can be used to make nuclear weapons. Opponents of the shipments fear that terrorists or a rogue country might try to hijack a shipment or that large quantities of the substance could be released into the atmosphere accidentally.

The 1.2 tons of plutonium were made into fuel rods for a nuclear power plant in western Germany. But construction of the $6.3 billion fast-breeder reactor in Kalkar was halted several years ago after huge protests, and Germany has no use for the material.

Environment Ministry spokesman Franz Emde told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Bonn that the 125 fuel elements were taking up storage space needed for other materials, and the government had decided to warehouse the plutonium abroad.

Reports in this week’s Der Spiegel news magazine and on ARD television Tuesday indicated another plutonium shipment was about to be dispatched. Emde said ″the timing has not been decided.″

Environment Minister Klaus Toepfer said on ARD television it was a ″responsible decision″ to ship the plutonium by air.

The environmental group Greenpeace regards the shipments as unsafe. Damon Moglen, an American specialist for Greenpeace on nuclear shipments, said the United States has banned the type of containers used in Europe for air shipments of dangerous nuclear materials.

″They are built to standards not based on reasonable accidents,″ Moglen said by telephone from Paris, where he is monitoring the voyage of the Japanese vessel Akatsuki Maru as it carries 1.3 tons of plutonium from France to Japan.

The Akatsuki Maru embarked from Cherbourg, France, on Nov. 7 amid clashes with seaborne Greenpeace protesters trying to draw attention to hazards of the voyage.

Moglen said the Japanese vessel was now in the South Atlantic, and it was not clear whether it would head toward the Pacific Ocean or the Indian Ocean on its way to Japan.

Japan originally wanted to fly its plutonium from Europe but protests from the United States and Canada forced the sea shipment instead, with protection from a Japanese coast guard ship equipped with helicopters.

Japan’s plutonium is destined for fast-breeder reactors, an experimental design that is dying out elsewhere because it uses the deadly material. But the fast-breeder is considered desirable in Japan, which depends on imports for virtually all of its energy, because it produces more nuclear fuel than it consumes.

Only three plants in the world reprocess fuel rods commercially, so the inherent hazards of plutonium are compounded by long journeys to France, England or Dounreay, on the remote northern coast of Scotland.

The Dounreay reactor is to be closed in 1994, but its fuel processing plant is to remain in operation. The Dounreay spokesman said the plant would store the German plutonium until 1994, at which time Germany has to decide what to do with it.

Although plutonium shipments have provoked vigorous protests when they become known, more often they take place with no publicity.

Hans-Friedrich Meyer, spokesman for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a telephone interview that plutonium is produced ″virtually every day″ in the French and British reprocessing plants.

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