Attack on nuclear plant 'could kill 3.5m'

By Geoffrey Lean,Environment Editor
Sunday 16 February 2003 01:00

More than three and a half million people could be killed by a terrorist attack on a British nuclear plant, concludes a series of three reports so alarming that even Greenpeace – which commissioned them – is unwilling to publish them.

The reports – whose findings the Government has also sought to suppress – show that terrorists could identify the most dangerous parts of the plants from publicly available information and crash aircraft into them, releasing vast amounts of radioactivity.

Now MPs and peers have launched an investigation by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology into the revelations as part of a formal inquiry into "the possible risks and consequences of a terrorist attack at a nuclear facility in the UK". They decided to set up the inquiry last month – at the urging of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee – drawing on the reports and other material, even though ministers warned that much of the information they needed was secret and would not be made available to them.

The reports show that Britain could face a far greater threat than the danger of ricin, constantly quoted by ministers, or the warnings of a rocket attack on an aircraft that led to last week's deployment of tanks at Heathrow. Yet one of their authors – John Large, an independent nuclear expert – says that the Government has reacted to it with "staggering indolence".

The three reports, commissioned by Greenpeace after the 11 September attacks, cover the vulnerability of Britain's nuclear installations, the possibility of an attack from the air and the consequences of the resulting disaster. They were completed at the end of 2001, but the pressure group has sat on them for over a year, unable to decide what to do with them. They are still being kept a closely guarded secret.

The first, by Dr Large, concludes that Britain's nuclear plants are "almost totally ill-prepared" for an airborne terrorist attack. The second, by an aviation expert, suggests that it would only take four minutes for an airliner to divert from its regular flight path to attack the most dangerous target of all, the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria. And the third, by leading scientist Dr Frank Barnaby, estimates that, at worst, 3.6 million people could die as a result.

Dr Large said last night that he had found it "astonishingly easy" to get information on targets at Sellafield and other nuclear plants, and that he had been sent official reports identifying them without any attempt to check on his bona fides.

He said: "A terrorist cell charged with attacking Sellafield could readily obtain sufficient information from publicly available documents to identify highly hazardous and vulnerable targets for which there exists little defence in depth."

Dr Barnaby – a former Aldermaston scientist, who was for 10 years director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – concludes that a jumbo jet crashing into Sellafield could cause a fireball over a mile high.

He says that 25 times as much radioactivity as was emitted by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 would be likely to be released, eventually killing 1.1 million people from cancer. In the worst case scenario, the number of deaths could reach 3.6 million.

Dr Large was so alarmed by his findings that he asked Greenpeace not to publish his report, and stamped the words "Not for Open Publication" on every page.

Greenpeace, for its part, has been paralysed by indecision by the reports, unable to decide even to disclose their findings to ministers or officials to try to get them to act on the vulnerabilities they identified.

The pressure group is highly sensitive about this, and has only now decided – after repeated questioning by The Independent on Sunday – "to seek to stimulate this debate within government over the next months".

Shaun Birnie, a nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace International, said last week that there had been "months of debate" inside the organisation about what to do with the reports, with some activists fearing that the Government might take action against it.

He admitted: "We never got round to agreeing how to use this report" but threatened that any suggestion in this article that Greenpeace had sat on the report would damage relations with the IoS.

Challenged to explain the organisation's lack of urgency at a time of an increasing terrorist threat, he said: "There is no reason to rush this. A year is a very, very short time in the half life of plutonium."

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