October 1999

Plutonium sent to UK by Mystake

Independent, 9 October 1999

[Posted 09/10/1999]

ROMANO PRODI, the EU president, ordered a review of the transportation of radioactive material across Europe after a shipment of plutonium destined for France arrived in Oxfordshire by mistake.

It raised issues about the bureaucracy attached to radioactive transportation after it emerged the mistake occurred because of bungled paperwork. There was no radiation leak or other contamination of people or property, the European Commission said last night but Mr Prodi ordered the review of procedures to prevent a repeat of "this regrettable incident".

The plutonium was discovered yesterday by workers at the Croft Company in Abingdon, where the containers used for carrying dangerous material are routinely maintained. The container arrived for mandatory maintenance but when workers opened it they found plutonium that should have been offloaded.

The shipment should have been offloaded in Belgium more than a month ago. It had been prepared in Geel, Belgium, and should have been transported to a nuclear processing plant in France. But Belgian delays in completing the export paperwork meant that it was still in Geel when the deadline arrived for the container's routine maintenance, so the container was rerouted to Oxfordshire still filled with plutonium.

"It was opened there on October 7. Inside the ... container the radioactive material was properly and securely packaged," said a Commission statement. "There was no leak of radiation, no contamination or irradiation of the premises, nor of any person."

The Belgian and British authorities were told what had happened, and the container is now at the Atomic Research Centre in Harwell.

Mr Prodi has brought in two commissioners, Loyola de Palacio, in charge of transport and energy, and Phillipe Busquin, responsible for research, to lead the inquiry. "I am relieved that this regrettable incident had no harmful consequences. However, I am deeply concerned that it could have happened," he said.

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