June 2002

UK nuclear safety report discloses deficiencies

NewScientist.com News Service, 12 june 2002
By Rob Edwards

[Posted 13/06/2002]

Staff shortages and security problems are hampering attempts to protect nuclear plants from terrorist attack, a new report for the British government reveals.

The Office for Civil Nuclear Security, a shadowy state agency charged since 2000 with protecting 31 nuclear sites across the UK, has published its first ever report. Put quietly up on the Department of Trade and Industry website yesterday, it discloses "difficulties" with recruitment and several previously unknown "deficiencies" in security arrangements.

There was a flaw in the procedure for vetting staff at a new plutonium fuel manufacturing plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, which required "temporary compensating arrangements" to be made. Workers have to be checked to make sure that they will not be recruited by terrorists to steal plutonium, which can be made into a nuclear bomb.

The security clearances for guards at nuclear power stations also had to be tightened up following a sabotage attempt two years ago. According to the report, a guard tried "to compromise the station's access control system". No further details are given.

Delayed inspections

The director of civil nuclear security, Michael Buckland-Smith, is concerned that his 35 staff and £1.6 million annual budget are inadequate, particularly since the terrorist attacks against the US on September 11th. "I have lost two experienced inspectors over the past 18 months and faced considerable difficulty and delay recruiting replacements," he says.

"Unfortunately, four of my most experienced staff are either retiring or leaving in the next twelve months, compounding the difficulties we anticipate finding suitably qualified replacements and filling new posts."

Buckland-Smith argues six extra posts are "essential if my office is to continue to regulate security in the civil nuclear industry comprehensively and effectively, given the heightened terrorist threat". A planned programme of nuclear site inspections, suspended after September 11th, will not start again until next month "at the earliest".

Widespread contamination

More than 12,500 workers at nuclear plants have been vetted over the past year by Buckland-Smith's staff. "Public concerns are often misconceived and exaggerated," he says. "Nevertheless, a successful sabotage attack on a nuclear facility could cause widespread radioactive contamination and loss of life."

Frank Barnaby, a nuclear consultant who used to work at the Aldermaston atomic weapons plant in Berkshire, points out that insiders could damage vital cooling systems at waste stores or reactors. "That would be a disaster," he says.

The staff shortages "reflects a disturbing disinterest in security matters by the government", according to David Lowry, an environmental consultant specialising in nuclear policy.

But this is denied by a government spokesman, who stresses that the Office for Civil Nuclear Security is doing a good job. "There are some staffing issues that need to be addressed," he says. "But we are confident that we will be able to recruit high quality staff."

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