AFP - A convoy of recycled Japanese nuclear fuel arrived Wednesday in the French port of Cherbourg to be shipped to Japan, despite warnings its transport could pose a proliferation risk.
Five trucks bearing the symbol for radioactive material and accompanied by dozens of police vehicles arrived in the early hours at the northern port, according to a correspondent at the scene.
The mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel is a blend of plutonium and reprocessed uranium that Japan, which has virtually no natural energy resources of its own, wants to start using for the first time.
French nuclear group Areva, which reprocessed the Japanese fuel at a plant in La Hague, 20 kilometres (15 miles) from Cherbourg, insists the production of MOX is safe and that it helps reduce nuclear waste.
But environmental group Greenpeace has attacked the shipment as "unsafe, insecure and unnecessary," saying the two-month journey would be the largest ever plutonium transportation in history and a major proliferation risk.
Greenpeace, some of whose activists were prosecuted after trying to block the last French MOX convoy to Japan in 2001, says the recycled fuel contains 1.8 tonnes of plutonium, enough to make 225 nuclear bombs.
The environmentalist group said Wednesday's convoy arrived from the Areva plant in La Hague, and expects a second convoy to arrive Wednesday night, to be loaded Thursday onto two British ships bound for Japan.
Greenpeace said two ships from Britain's Pacific Nuclear Transport company, each with armed police on board, had already left their home ports to take on board the fuel at Cherbourg.
A spokesman for French nuclear group Areva has confirmed that the shipment is being prepared, but not its exact size, nor when it would leave for Japan.
MOX has been used as nuclear fuel in various countries across the world for more than three decades, the French state-controlled group noted.
But Greenpeace argues that the chances of nuclear weapons proliferation are increased because of the risks of the shipments being seized en route.
"The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes that MOX can be used to make nuclear bombs," said the group, which has written to the UN nuclear watchdog to ask it to prevent the shipment.
"You cannot say whether, if a malevolent person managed to separate the plutonium from the uranium, which is a difficult process, this plutonium, which is civilian not military grade, would be capable of making a nuclear bomb," said Thierry Dujardin of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.
"No-one has done this," he told AFP. "One cannot exclude the possibility that an organisation would try, and that is why these convoys are protected."
Areva said on its website that the two ships that will transport the MOX "are also armed with guns and are protected by a specially trained force, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary."
The fuel will travel from France to Japan using three possible routes -- via the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Horn or the Panama Canal, it said.
The nuclear fuel reprocessed by Areva came from three regional Japanese power companies and is intended for use at light-water reactors of the companies based in southern and central Japan.
According to Greenpeace France's head of energy questions, Yannick Rousselet, Japan is obliged to take back the MOX, as it did in 2001, but has yet to start using it as fuel in the face of local objections.
Japan, which relies on nuclear power plants for nearly one-third of its power demands, has also built its own reprocessing plant, which is expected to begin operating soon.
But the plant's opening has been delayed after a series of minor accidents stirred up objections from the local community.
The Japanese government aims to step up the use of nuclear energy as the Asian economic power has virtually no natural energy resources.
But public fears rose last year when an earthquake caused a fire and a small radiation leak at the world's biggest nuclear plant of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa northwest of Tokyo.