Ministers are about to approve plans that would put enough plutonium to build hundreds of terrorist nuclear bombs into public circulation, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
The plans are being pushed through by Tony Blair, despite opposition from Michael Meacher, the Environment minister. Yet the Prime Minister warned Parliament on Friday, in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Centre, that terrorists would use nuclear weapons "if they could" and called for their attempts to obtain them to be "exposed, disrupted and stamped out".
Senior strategic experts yesterday accused him of being "either ignorant or irresponsible" in pressing ahead with the plans, which they said made it "virtually inevitable" that terrorist groups would get the atomic bomb.
The approval, expected early this week, is to allow a controversial new plant at Sellafield to start operation. The mixed-oxide (Mox) plant is designed to make fuel for nuclear reactors out of a mixture of uranium and plutonium the raw material for nuclear bombs which would then be exported around the world.
The £473m plant was built nearly four years ago by British Nuclear Fuels, which has been seeking government permission to start it up ever since. But approval has been held up, partly by Mr Meacher's opposition and partly because of a collapse in confidence in Japan, its main prospective customer, after The Independent revealed that data on fuel from a pilot plant had been falsified.
Mr Meacher has argued both that transportation of the fuel to Japan and elsewhere could be intercepted by terrorists and that the plant was unlikely to make money. But sources say that detailed papers prepared by his department to support his objections have not even been read by senior colleagues.
Under heavy pressure, especially from Mr Blair, who enthusiastically supports Sellafield, he has finally been forced to give way.
Yet Mr Blair told the specially reconvened House of Commons: "We know that these groups are fanatics capable of killing without discrimination. The limits on the numbers they kill and their methods of killing are not governed by morality.
"The limits are only practical or technical. We know that they would, if they could, go further and use chemical or biological or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction. We have been warned by the events of September 11. We should act on that warning."
The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, sounded a similar alarm.
Yesterday Dr Frank Barnaby, a former nuclear-weapons specialist at Aldermaston who became director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said that starting up the plant would "make it virtually inevitable that terrorists will acquire the plutonium they want from the fuel, and make nuclear weapons with it".
He said that it was "not technically demanding" to separate the plutonium out of the mixed fuel, or to make it into a bomb. A "second-year undergraduate" would be able to master the concepts involved.Reuse content