LARGE quantities of plutonium have been shipped by air to Scotland in containers designed to withstand an impact of only 30mph, without the knowledge of the Department of Transport.
The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) said last night that it had informed the department of a shipment of 80 plutonium fuel rods - containing about 500kg (half a ton) of the toxic substance - from Germany to its nuclear plant at Dounreay via Wick airport. But Steven Norris, a transport minister, told the Commons last month: 'No such shipment from Germany to Dounreay via Wick airport has been notified to my department.'
A spokeswoman for the UKAEA said: 'We notify the Department of Transport of all shipments'. Air transfers of plutonium had been 'routine' for 20 years, and the last shipment was in November, she said.
The 80 plutonium rods are part of a consignment of 200 fuel assemblies originally intended for the now defunct fast-breeder reactor at Kalka. Nuclear authorities in Germany want to send them to Dounreay because it is cheaper to store them in the UK.
The UKAEA said another 120 fuel rods were expected from Germany within the next few months. 'Air transport is a possibility,' the spokeswoman said.
The air transport of plutonium is controversial because the UK follows current international safeguards considered inadequate even by the watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Containers, for instance, are built to withstand a drop on to an 'unyielding' surface from a height of 9m (30ft), eqivalent to an impact of 30mph. The US insists on containers that can withstand an impact of 288mph. The Nuclear Control Institute, a US think-tank, has called on the British Government to ban movements of plutonium by air until more stringent requirements, under consideration by the IAEA, are enacted.
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