Nuclear waste trains 'at risk from terrorists'

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The Independent Online

The risk of a terrorist attack on trains carrying nuclear waste through London should be re-evaluated, the Government was told yesterday.

Up to 200 trains carrying spent nuclear fuel from atomic power stations on the south coast pass through the capital every year on their way to the British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) reprocessing plant at Sellafield in Cumbria.

GLA members conducting a safety inquiry into the traffic believe the threat of sabotage by terrorists has not not taken sufficiently seriously – and they are calling for an urgent review in the light of the attacks on New York and Washington. Darren Johnson, leader of the Green party on the GLA and chairman of the authority's nuclear waste trains investigative committee, has written to the Energy minister, Brian Wilson, asking for the reassessment. "They're looking at this very seriously in the United States and we're calling on the Government to deal with it urgently," Mr Johnson said.

Spent uranium fuel rods are transported to Sellafield from three nuclear reactor sites on the South-east – Dungeness in Kent, Bradwell in Essex and Sizewell in Suffolk. The trains, operated by BNFL's own transport company, Direct Rail Services, all pass through central London and are marshalled at Willesden before heading north. The spent fuel is contained in specially designed steel flasks and there has never been a leak of radioactivity in the 40 years the traffic has been running.

But Mr Johnson said: "It has always been maintained by the regulatory authorities and the nuclear industry in this country that nuclear flasks are not a promising target for terrorists. Nevertheless, work carried out in the US before 11 September indicated that it was a credible scenario to assume that a flask could be sabotaged, and could be punctured with an explosive device.

"We didn't get full details from either the nuclear industry or from other bodies about the arrangements in place to deal with a terrorist threat in this country. But what we were concerned to hear was that they didn't consider it a very plausible threat which suggest that there aren't many precautions in place to deal with it. So we are calling on them to deal with it urgently."

Mr Johnson added that in the US, the transport of nuclear waste by rail had been suspended after 11 September.

The committee's report also pointed out that there had never been a full-scale test of all the emergency procedures in place to deal with a nuclear rail accident in London, and suggested this should take place as soon as possible.

A spokesman for BNFL said last night: "We get advice on our security from the Government. Since 11 September this has been looked at and we have been allowed to continue with these transports."

A spokesman for the Energy minister said last night: "The Office of Civil Nuclear Security, which is an independent office with the Department of Trade and Industry, is looking at this."