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.
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