Top-secret shipments of weapons-ready plutonium through British waters have been stopped, after their exposure by The Independent on Sunday. The Department for Transport (DfT) said last week that it had taken "regulatory action" to prohibit the shipments from Sellafield to Normandy on an unarmed old roll-on, roll-off ferry, with few safety or security features. The prohibition, the first of its kind, was imposed after complaints by the French nuclear safety authorities.
The shipments – denounced by nuclear weapons experts as "madness" and "totally irresponsible" – were carrying hundreds of kilograms of plutonium-dioxide powder, described as the ideal material for terrorists seeking to create a nuclear explosion or make a dirty bomb. Only 10kg of the plutonium, experts claim, would be needed to make a terrorist atomic weapon.
John Large, an independent nuclear expert, called it "the most dangerous and worst possible material you could ship". The first shipment – in the converted ferry Atlantic Osprey – was about to leave Cumbria for a French nuclear complex at Cap la Hague in March, when the plan was exposed in The IoS.
Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative environment spokesman, and Steve Webb, his Lib-Dem counterpart, condemned the shipment as a threat to national security and it was delayed for two months, finally taking place secretly on 21 May.
But last Tuesday, in a parliamentary answer slipped out just before the Commons broke up for the summer, the junior Transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick told the Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker: "As a result of discussion between this department and L'Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire regarding the shipment of plutonium by Sellafield Ltd in May, and our subsequent investigations, we took regulatory action to prevent further shipments of plutonium from Sellafield in the same manner."
Late last week, the DfT refused to explain why it had acted, apart from saying that "the company failed to abide by the terms of its certificate of approval".
Sellafield Ltd has said it is appealing against the decision. It said: "We take this matter very seriously", adding: "We are unable to comment any further."
Mr Baker, the Lib-Dem transport spokesman, said: "The Government was very lax in allowing this material to be shipped on such an unsuitable vessel. Sadly, the evidence is it will do nothing to challenge the nuclear industry unless forced to do so by public pressure, in this case following the exposure of the shipments in The IoS."
The plans resulted from one of Britain's least known industrial scandals: the failure of a controversial £473m plant at Sellafield which was, designed to make new fuel out of plutonium and uranium recovered from reprocessing at the nuclear complex.
In March, Energy minister Malcolm Wicks had to admit that the plant, designed to produce 120 tons of the fuel a year, had worked so badly that it had managed only 5.3 in five years of operation. Which meant Sellafield had to turn to its chief rival, in France, to complete its orders.