'Dirty bomb' threat as UK ships plutonium to France

From Sellafield, an ordinary, unarmed ferry is to transport weapons-ready plutonium – material that could easily be used to make a 'dirty bomb'

Weapons-ready plutonium that terrorists could easily make into a nuclear bomb is to be carried hundreds of miles down the west coast of Britain in an unarmed ship,
The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Experts say that the plutonium dioxide powder, shortly to be taken to France from the Sellafield nuclear complex for the first time, would be an ideal material for creating a nuclear explosion and for use in a dirty bomb. One calls it "the worst possible material" to ship.

Yet the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which owns Sellafield, is to take it on an old roll-on roll-off ferry with few security and safety features – even though it has used armed and better-equipped vessels to transport less dangerous nuclear materials in the past.

The environment spokesmen for both main opposition parties voiced concern at the risk to national security and the environment.

Ministers have repeatedly warned that groups such as al-Qa'ida are seeking fissile material so that they can make nuclear bombs. Only last week the Royal Society, Britain's premier scientific body, drew attention to "the potential threat of nuclear terrorism".

The shipment – expected to be the first of a series – arises from the highly embarrassing failure of a £473m plant at the complex, which was designed to make new nuclear fuel out of mixture of plutonium and uranium oxides recovered from used fuel. Sellafield humiliatingly had to turn to its chief competitor, the French firm Cogema, to fulfil its orders for the fuel – and says it must replace the plutonium it used on its behalf.

It will not give details of the shipments for "security reasons", or even disclose how much weapons-ready material it is having to return owing to "commercial confidentiality". But Core, a Cumbrian campaign group which monitors transport of nuclear material from the complex, said that shipments will start in "the next few days" and will involve hundreds of kilograms of plutonium, enough to make "a large number" of bombs.

Core is withholding the exact date of the shipment and The Independent on Sunday has decided not to publish the name of the ship or the route it will take, to avoid any chance of disclosing information that might be of use to terrorists. But an old ro-ro ferry with inferior safety and security features will be used.

When Sellafield sent mixed oxide fuel to Japan in 1999, it used two superior, purpose-built vessels, Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal, even though the fuel is less dangerous and useful to terrorists than the new weapons-ready cargo.

The two ships were both armed with naval guns and rode shotgun for each other, ensuring that terrorists would not know which one was carrying the material. Both had double hulls to enable them to withstand collisions, and two engines, in case one failed.

The vessel to be used for the new shipments will be manned by armed officers from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, but will be otherwise unarmed and will not have an escort. And it is equipped with only a single hull and one engine.

Sellafield says that the less secure ship is being used as it has less distance to travel and carries less nuclear material. The dangerous cargo could be driven straight on and off. But John Large, an independent nuclear expert, said the size of the cargo and journey distance are "irrelevant". "They are showing incredible double standards. They are prepared to put the British public at greater risk than they pose when travelling on the high seas. It is the most dangerous and worst possible material that you could ship, and everyone knows that. This is cavalier."

Dr Frank Barnaby, one of Britain's leading experts on nuclear terrorism, said that "a reasonably resourced terrorist group would have no problem making a bomb out of this material" and that it was also ideal for a dirty radioactive bomb as the powder was enormously toxic and would vaporise, making it easy to breathe in. He added: "This is madness, totally irresponsible."

Martin Forwood of Core said: "Ministers should step in, and stop this shipment in the light of the terrorist threat." Steve Webb, the Lib Dem environment spokesman, described the shipment as "a risk to our national security". Peter Ainsworth, shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, said: "No risk should be taken with the environment and public safety."

Sellafield said its nuclear shipments were "safe and secure" and that the transport methods were approved by government and international regulators.

The Department for Business and Enterprise said that nuclear transports were subject to "the most stringent" security measures.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

News
people
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
News
news

Lincoln MP Karl McCartney 'denied all knowledge' of the Twitter activity

News
The author PD James, who died on 27 November 2014
people

Detective novelist who wrote Death comes to Pemberley passed away peacefully at her home, aged 94

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
Life and Style
View of champagne glasses at a beach bar set up along the Croisette during the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes on May 17, 2013
food + drink(and for now, there's a clear winner)
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
arts + ents
Life and Style
tech

Sites using the popular Gigya comment platform were attacked by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Visitor Centre - Attraction Manager

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: For the first time in its 1,000...

Recruitment Genius: Air Conditioning Service and / or Installation Engineers

£27400 - £33500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time air conditioning, ven...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Web Developer

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of web an...

Recruitment Genius: Class 1 Driver

£12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Our Client has been the leader in the events...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?