France is set to send recycled nuclear fuel to Japan in what environmentalists say is the biggest ever plutonium shipment and one that increases the chance of nuclear proliferation.
"We confirm the preparation of a shipment to Japan of MOX fuel," said a spokesman for nuclear group Areva at its plant in La Hague in northern France where the MOX is stored after being made from used Japanese nuclear fuel.
MOX, or mixed oxide, is a blend of plutonium and reprocessed uranium that Japan, which has virtually no natural energy resources, wants to start using for the first time.
The environmental group Greenpeace said on its website that transporting MOX was "unsafe, insecure and unnecessary."
"This is the first MOX transport to Japan for eight years. This will be the largest shipment of plutonium in history - the MOX fuel elements contain a total of 1.8 tons of plutonium.
"That?s enough to make 225 nuclear weapons," it said.
Greenpeace said two ships from Britain's Pacific Nuclear Transport company, each with armed police on board, had already left their home ports and would this week take on board the fuel at the northern French port of Cherbourg.
Greenpeace, whose activists were arrested in 2001 when they tried to stop a similar convoy from leaving Cherbourg for Japan, did not say if it was planning any actions this week to try to prevent the ships leaving.
Areva, which says the production of MOX is safe and that it helps reduce the levels of nuclear waste, gave no details about the size of the shipments and did not give a precise date for their planned departure.
MOX fuel has been used in various countries across the world for more than three decades, the French state-controlled group noted.
Greenpeace argues that the chances of nuclear weapons proliferation are increased because of the risks of the shipments being seized en route by would-be terrorists.
"The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes that MOX can be used to make nuclear bombs," it said.
Thierry Dujardin of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency said "if a malevolent person managed to separate the plutonium from the uranium, which is a difficult process, this plutonium... would be capable of making a nuclear bomb."
"No-one has done this," he told AFP. "One cannot exclude the possibility that an organization 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 -- Kyushu Electric, Shikoku Electric and Chubu Electric.
It is intended for use at light-water reactors of the companies based in southern and central Japan.
Japan, which relies on nuclear power plants for nearly one-third of its power demands, has built its own reprocessing plant in northern Aomori prefecture, 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 power 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.© Wire reports