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15 October 2001

How Sellafield may help the terrorists

War on Terror: The Nuclear Threat - Did anybody explain to Tony Blair about the dangers of

By Geoffrey Lean

Does anyone remember “joined-up government”? The phrase struck a chord before the 1997 election, with its promise of a more considered, co-ordinated conduct of affairs – but it has long since grown pretty faint. A decision this month surely sounded its death knell.

Just as Tony Blair was warning that, in this war against terrorism, the terrorists would develop nuclear weapons, he boosted the enemy’s chances of getting their hands on a devastating potential weapon. He decreed that enough plutonium to enable them to make hundreds of atomic bombs should be put into circulation each year.

The decision to give the go-ahead to the mixed-oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel plant at Sellafield was pushed through by the Prime Minister, against resistance from Michael Meacher, the environment minister. The plant will mix plutonium and uranium oxides – recovered from spent nuclear fuel at its reprocessing units – for new fuel rods, to be shipped around the world to power nuclear reactors.

The trouble is that it would be quite easy for a terrorist group, having intercepted a shipment, to get the plutonium out again.

British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), the nationalised company that owns the plant, denies this. It insists that such a group would need “incredible infrastructure”, indeed a reprocessing plant of its own, to extract enough plutonium for a bomb. Alas, it has been established that this is not so: the Royal Society and the US government’s Office of Arms Control and Non-Proliferation have both recently confirmed that it could be done “relatively easily”.

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An expert study group from the Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore US weapons laboratories concluded that it would take a group of just four people to extract the plutonium. And Dr Frank Barnaby, who worked at Aldermaston before becoming director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, adds that “a second-year undergraduate” could master the concepts involved. Once a group has the plutonium, making a bomb would prove no more demanding, says Dr Barnaby, than constructing the device that destroyed the Pan Am jumbo over Lockerbie. He says the question is not so much “which terrorist groups could do all this?” as “which could not?”.

So one might have thought that 11 September would give the government pause before approving a plant that will, it is estimated, send out enough plutonium to make between 170 and 500 terrorist nuclear bombs a year. The government did pause – for just a few days, while ministers sought further advice. The advice? Any terrorist threat was “negligible”. Reassuring? Not really. Because the “independent” Office of Civil Nuclear Security, which dismissed the danger so airily, turns out to be part of the Department of Trade and Industry, which also owns BNFL.

There is no economic benefit to be had from the plant – quite the contrary. Almost half a billion pounds of public money has already been sunk into building the plant and keeping it idle for the five years since it was completed. No one, not even BNFL at its most hyperbolic, believes it will recover this. The best estimate of a recent economic study, commissioned by the government, is that it might earn back about one-third of the sum over its entire lifetime.

Even this is highly optimistic. The study, for example, does not take into account the considerable expense of shipping the fuel to foreign customers, including Japan. Nor does it include the cost of business rates for the plant. The plant will need to achieve at least 40 per cent capacity to cover its running costs; so far, despite years of salesmanship, BNFL has firm contracts for just 11 per cent.

Breaking even will depend crucially on whether BNFL gets orders for the fuel, at a good price, from Japan. Its chances have dropped dramatically since it was caught two years ago falsifying safety data on MOX fuel that it sent to Japan from a pilot plant. The Japanese government said it will not accept any more of the fuel until “public confidence” has been restored. Yet if anything, that confidence is diminishing. In a crucial vote in May, the people of Kariwa, near one of the reactors that would use the fuel, rejected it. The governors of Niigata and Fukushima prefectures have taken similar stances.

There is no commercial reason why they should accept the fuel: MOX is much more expensive than ordinary nuclear fuel made from uranium. The only reason why Japan, or any other foreign customer, shows any interest at all is that it is a relatively convenient way of getting back the plutonium from the spent fuel they send to Sellafield for reprocessing.

The government’s one good argument is that it is more secure to send it back as MOX fuel than raw. But what about “immobilising” the plutonium by mixing it with nuclear waste and binding it in glass, a cheaper process that would make it inaccessible to terrorists? Britons will be paying a fortune to endanger their own security, and the world’s. It is hard to dissent from the verdict of Charles Secrett, the executive director of Friends of the Earth. “This isn’t joined-up government. It’s unhinged government.”

Geoffrey Lean is environment editor of the Independent on Sunday