BNFL aims to throw veil of secrecy over the movement of radioactive waste

Nuclear giant says it wants to prevent terrorist attacks, but environmentalists accuse it of a cover-up. Clayton Hirst reports
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The Independent Online

British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) is to have information on the movement of radioactive material by road, rail and sea classified.

British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) is to have information on the movement of radioactive material by road, rail and sea classified.

The state-owned company believes the decision will reduce the chances of its nuclear material being targeted by terrorists. Environmentalists have branded the move a "cover-up".

The decision will mean the public could be kept in the dark if nuclear material is transported on passenger ferries or through the Channel Tunnel.

BNFL has taken its cue from a new report produced by the Department of Trade and Industry-funded Office for Civil Nuclear Security (OCNS). This recommends that details of the movements of all but the lowest category of radioactive material should "not be releasable".

The report says: "Information of this sort would be an aid to choosing targets while planning attacks for theft or sabotage." It warns: "If nuclear material were to be stolen or sabotaged, for example by terrorists, the potential consequences could be extremely grave."

Britain is one of the world's biggest transporters of radioactive material. According to BNFL, in the past 30 years, some 7,000 tons of spent fuel has been moved over 4.5 million miles.

The OCNS recommends restrictions on other nuclear information. The report says that details of the quantity, type and location of radioactive waste from decommissioning should be kept out of the public domain.

The OCNS also says that some of the information contained in planning applications for nuclear facilities should be placed in an "annexe", marked confidential. "The planning authorities should be notified that [the annexe] is to be protected and not for public consumption," the report says.

A BNFL spokesman confirmed that it would be "guided by [the OCNS] advice". He added: "It is a completely responsible attitude to take in this day and age."

He rejected accusations that BNFL was suppressing information: "Rather than become shrouded in secrecy, we are working with key stakeholders to find ways of improving communications with the public."

BNFL has set up a so-called Stakeholder Dialogue Working Group, which will publish its own report on security before the end of the year.

The news has, however, raised the alarm among environmentalists. Norman Baker MP, the environment spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "It is right that appropriate action is taken to ensure that nuclear material is not an easy terrorist target. But I am concerned that this may be used to cover up unacceptable practices."

Mr Baker cited a recent OCNS report on a train carrying nuclear waste. The train was parked in sidings at Willesden, north-west London, but the OCNS found that security arrangements were inadequate and kept it there for a week.

Mr Baker also pointed to a recent written parliamentary answer by Transport minister David Jamieson. The minister revealed that the transportation of radioactive material on passenger ferries and through the Channel Tunnel "is permissible".

Greenpeace is also worried about the decision. Jean McSorley, the pressure group's nuclear campaign co-ordinator, said the move could have serious implications for local authorities. "Councils need to know about the transportation of the material should there be an accident. As we all know, in this kind of situation it would be local authority people who would be expected to go on site and sort things out.

"The irony is that if a terrorist group really wanted to find out the movements of nuclear material then they could. People talk."