courts catastrophe by shipping plutonium
The Guardian News Service, 12 june 2002
By George Monbiot
LONDON: The world now faces two imminent nuclear threats. The first
is the stand-off between India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers vacillating
on the brink of war. The second arises from a commercial deal between
the United Kingdom and Japan.
At the end of this week, two British ships will pull into the port
of Takahama to collect enough plutonium to make 17 atomic bombs. Although
the transport of nuclear material within Japan has been halted during
the World Cup, as there are not enough police to guarantee its safety,
the power behind this shipment permits no such considerations. The plutonium
will be transported 18,000 miles through some of the roughest and most
dangerous seas on earth back to Britain, where it will be repacked and
returned to Japan.
The security of the shipment has been described by the definitive defence
briefing, Jane's Foreign Report, as "totally inadequate".
Britain and Japan are to launch, in the form of the two freighters carrying
the material, a pair of floating dirty bombs, waiting for a detonator.
And they are doing so for reasons that have nothing to do with economics
and nothing to do with defence, but everything to do with a politics
which is as mad and dangerous as their mission.
The cargo they will collect is a consignment of mixed plutonium and
uranium oxides - Mox for short - which was delivered by British Nuclear
Fuels Ltd to Japan, where it was to have been used as reactor fuel.
The Japanese discovered that BNFL had falsified its records, and demanded
that the company retrieve it.
Britain's nuclear policy, in other words, is like the old woman who
swallowed a fly. Every solution is worse than the problem it was supposed
to address. Every new justification ratchets up the probability of a
major nuclear accident or breach of security. Yet the programme's institutional
momentum carries all before it.
This programme can sustain itself only until the public grasps the
two unavoidable facts of nuclear power. The first is that there is,
as yet, no safe means of disposing of the wastes it produces. The second
is that even if one were found, the monitoring and safe management of
these wastes requires 250,000 years of political and economic stability.
No government on earth can guarantee five.
It is the British government's attempts to prevent us from grasping
these truths which now expose the world to the threat of both nuclear
proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Reprocessing has bequeathed to
the UK the biggest plutonium stockpile in the world: 60 tons of our
own, and 10 tons of other people's. The entire stock, as the government's
security review board discovered in January, is stored at Sellafield
in buildings scarcely more robust than garden sheds. Thirteen kilogrammes
of plutonium is enough to make an atom bomb.
Turning this plutonium into Mox is presented as the solution to proliferation.
Unhappily, it introduces four further problems. The first is that the
Mox process generates still more nuclear waste. The second is that,
like every other aspect of the nuclear industry, it costs far more to
produce, when all expenses are taken into account, than it can ever
recoup. The third is that hardly anyone wants to buy it, as most nuclear
power stations use the safer and much cheaper low-enriched uranium.
The fourth is that the only certain market is on the other side of the
Japan has its own warped institutional reasons for engaging in this
trade. Its fast-breeder programme, which was to have used the plutonium
extracted from the waste it sent to Sellafield for reprocessing, collapsed
after an accident in 1995. But it remains contractually bound to BNFL
to reimport its plutonium. So it has asked the company to turn it into
Mox, which it can use (at considerable hazard) in its light water reactors.
The dirty bombs BNFL is about to launch on the high seas will be, it
hopes, among the first of many. To avoid creating the impression that
this freight might possibly be dangerous, Japan has insisted that the
ships have no military escort. They have weapons on board, but neither
the radar-guided anti-missile defences nor the speed required to evade
an attack by a fast boat.
To spread plutonium across an entire region, terrorists need only send
a missile or boat like the one Osama bin Laden used to attack the USS
Cole, equipped with the right explosives, into the side of one of the
freighters. The Mox fuel is stored in containers which can resist temperatures
of 800C for 30 minutes. Fires on ships, as the Ecologist magazine has
pointed out, can burn for 24 hours at 1,000C.
Stealing the material is a matter of overwhelming the 26 British policemen
on board and blowing the hatches off, a task well within the capabilities
of several terrorist groups and all of the world's aspirant nuclear
states. The plutonium and uranium can be separated with chemical processes
less taxing than the manufacture of designer drugs.
When power resides with private companies, the British government will
nest with them and raise their young. When it resides with a state-owned
monster which would not have looked out of place in Brezhnev's Russia,
the same government will happily mate with that monster. One moment
it will warn of such threats to our security that the police must have
access to our email accounts, protesters must be classified as terrorists
and Afghanistan must be bombed; the next it will dismiss such concerns
as nonsense in order to ship plutonium round the world in civilian freighters.
The nuclear industry must be destroyed before it
destroys us. We must, in other words, wrench political power away from