could snatch plutonium
Independent on Sunday, 4 July 1999
by Geoffrey Lean
Britain is about to ship enough plutonium for more
than 60 atomic bombs half way around the world in freighters vulnerable
to armed attack from "nuclear pirates".
Military experts say there is a real possibility
that the vessels could be targeted by terrorist groups or rogue states
intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. They say the guns mounted on the
ships are inadequate to fend off a well orchestrated attack by pirates
with superior weapons.
Janes, the internationally renowned arms and naval
"It would not take much fire-power to knock them out," it said. The
ships were "capable of repelling only a lightly armed attack" and should
be protected by "at least one well-armed frigate". The shipment, which
will take place in the next few months, is planned as the first of many
over the next year. The number will increase sharply if ministers allow
a new plutonium plant at Sellafield, the controversial Cumbrian complex,
to start up. The plutonium, for power stations, is extracted from spent
Japanese fuel which is reprocessed at Sellafield and at Cap la Hague,
The prospect of such shipments has long worried security experts. Eleven
years ago the US defence department said they would be "accessible and
vulnerable throughout the voyage, particularly when the vessel is passing
through channels, straits, and other restricted waterways, or when it
is near the coast". The last plutonium shipment from Europe to Japan,
in 1992, was accompanied by a specially built patrol boat operated by
the Japanese Maritime Security Agency.
The US, which provided the original nuclear fuel to Japan and, under
a special agreement, has to approve security arrangements for shipments
of plutonium extracted from it, has repeatedly promised that all of
them would be accompanied by "an armed escort vessel". But it is now
clear that the new shipment will not be protected by a warship. Britain,
France and Japan all refuse to give details of the route or the security
arrangements and will only name the ships, describe what they are carrying,
and say when they are setting out, "only on one or two days before departure
US government documents show that the two freighters
- the Pacific Teal and the Pacific Pintail - will each carry three 30mm
guns and will be staffed by officers of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy
Authority armed with "assault rifles, shotguns and hand weapons".
Paul Leventhal, director of Washington's Nuclear
Control Institute, said: "Two freighters riding shotgun for each other
will not repel a real-world attack."
Dr Frank Barnaby, former director of Stockholm Peace
Research Institute, said maritime hijackings were "becoming more frequent
and violent" - there were 66 in the first three months of this year
- and added: "The attacks are generally made at night using speedboats.This
should give those responsible for the security of nuclear cargoes pause
Many studies have shown that a terrorist group,
let alone a rogue state, could get the plutonium from the fuel and make
it into nuclear weapons. The US has approved the scaled-down security
because, critics say, it does not want to antagonise France, Britain
and Japan. It says the freighters count as armed escort vessels because
the shipments are being carried out "on government service" by British
Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), a nationalised industry.
Critics say security has been lessened partly to
save money and partly as a public relations exercise because using a
warship escort would demonstrate vividly how dangerous the cargo is.
Martin Foreward, campaign co-ordinator of Cumbrians
Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, who has been monitoring the arming
of the freighters at Barrow-in-Furness, said: "Once again BNFL is taking
the cheap option, but this time it is putting not just Cumbria but the
whole world at risk."
A meeting of Prime Ministers of Eastern Caribbean states, on one of
the possible routes, called on Britain, France and Japan "to stop these
BNFL said its priority was "doing a good job and doing it safely."