But environmentalists fearful of terrorist attacks, accidents and the fuel itself, known as MOX, want to stop the shipment — a test run for a larger post-Cold War program to help the United States and Russia disarm.
Ironically, France will reap the first benefits of the project to turn nuclear weapons-grade plutonium into MOX, a fuel used to fire nuclear reactors, as Washington and Paris mend ties made prickly by differences over Iraq.
France's state-of-the-art nuclear technology is being used to help fulfill the terms of a September 2000 U.S.-Russia disarmament accord under which both countries promised to destroy 34 tons of military plutonium each.
First weapons-grade shipment
Radioactive material has been shipped to France in the past for conversion into MOX fuel, but this is the first time weapons-grade plutonium is being used.
The U.S. portion of the project is worth $250 million to $300 million to French state-run nuclear company Areva, which will start by turning 308 pounds of plutonium into MOX, a mixture of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide.
The environmental organization Greenpeace opposes the use of MOX to run reactors, saying it becomes hotter and more radioactive than the enriched uranium used to fuel most reactors.
The weapons-grade plutonium left Monday for France from Charleston, S.C., aboard the armed ships Pacific Teal and Pacific Pintail, Areva said. About 20 demonstrators waved signs and banners along the Charleston waterfront to protest the shipment.
For anti-nuclear activists, MOX presents a danger at every turn.
"What you have is material that can be used in nuclear weapons unfortunately being traded in as if you were moving bananas around," said Shaun Burnie, nuclear campaign coordinator of Greenpeace International. Security, he claimed "is an afterthought."
No MOX plant in U.S.
The U.S. Energy Department must ship the plutonium overseas for conversion because there isn't a plant in the United States that can do it.
After unloading at the French port of Cherbourg, the plutonium will cross about 620 miles of France in an armed convoy to factories in the south, where it will be converted into four rods of MOX. For security reasons, neither U.S. nor Areva officials would give an expected arrival date.
The MOX is to be shipped back to the United States in early 2005 for burning at South Carolina's Catawba Nuclear Station. Special security measures will be in place for that trip, too.
After this first test run, U.S. officials plan to build a MOX factory with French help at the Savannah River nuclear site, near Aiken, S.C., to dispose of the rest of the plutonium the United States agreed to destroy. Another MOX factory would be built, likely with Areva help, in Russia.
"Everyone is getting the payoff in this in that we're reducing and getting rid of dangerous material that could be used to make thousands of nuclear weapons," said Bryan Wilkes of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington.
"We're confident this material will be fully protected every step of the way," he added. The armed ships have "a specialized guard force. The people that are doing this have a lot of experience doing this. They're not shipping oranges."
Burial alternative also controversial
An alternative to using French technology would have been to bury the plutonium — a solution environmentalists also find troubling.
MOX is made only in France and Britain, with France having most of the market. Some 80 percent of France's electricity is generated by nuclear reactors — 20 of them using MOX. In the United States, there are no reactors that currently run on MOX and U.S. reactors will have to be adapted to use the fuel.
France stamped itself as a nuclear upstart in the 1960s when then-President Charles de Gaulle — intent on ensuring his country's independence from the mighty U.S. military umbrella — decided to develop atomic weapons.
France's nuclear arsenal quickly became a source of contention with the United States and other Atlantic alliance partners. De Gaulle pulled France out of NATO's military wing in 1966 and shut down U.S. bases here.
However, in today's post-Cold War world, the stakes have changed and U.S. bitterness over France's opposition to the invasion of Iraq appears to be diminishing.
Greenpeace accuses the United States and France of arrogance for organizing the plutonium trip even while pressuring other countries not to use technology or materials that could make nuclear weapons.
"Nonproliferation policy has been hijacked by the commercial nuclear industry," said Burnie. "This shipment is going to bring that into stark focus."