June 2002

Staff shortages hit security checks at nuclear sites

The Times Online, June 17, 2002
By Michael Evans, Defence Editor

[Posted 18/06/2002]

THE Government agency responsible for ensuring that Britain’s 31 civil nuclear sites are protected from terrorist attack is suffering from a shortage of specialist inspectors. Some crucial security checks have had to be suspended.

Michael Buckland-Smith, director of the Office for Civil Nuclear Security, which is part of the Department for Trade and Industry, has revealed in his annual report that, under pressure of work since September 11, he has been forced to cut back on crucial visits to nuclear plants which would have tested their compliance with improved security arrangements.

Mr Buckland-Smith who has a staff of 35, including five inspectors, and a budget of £1.6 million, said that after the September 11 attacks, on the advice of MI5, he had ordered a number of extra security measures to be implemented at all the nuclear sites. The measures included putting more concrete chicanes around the sites and introducing additional armed patrols.

Discussions were also held with the Ministry of Defence, he said, to counter the possibility of attacks from the air by hijacked airliners.

“The measures selected involved strengthened warning procedures and interdiction by RAF interceptor aircraft,” he said.

But, unlike the French, who installed surface-to-air missiles around their largest nuclear site at Cap le Hague, near Cherbourg, no steps were taken to protect similar sites in Britain with missiles. “Terrorists would assume, correctly, that precautions against hijacking would now be much more stringent in the wake of those attacks,” Mr Buckland-Smith said in his report, which has just been published.

Nine out of the 31 civil nuclear sites had been fully inspected before September 11 but the programme of visits had to be suspended immediately after the terrorist attacks “to allow the inspectors to concentrate their efforts on advising sites on the implementation of additional security measures”.

Although site visits had then been stepped up, “monitoring progress achieved in meeting earlier improvement requirements has been temporarily interrupted”.

He said: “Due to staff shortages and other pressures, I do not expect to resume a full programme of compliance inspections until July at the earliest.”

He told Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, that he was facing a recruiting problem because specialists in the field, mostly with police or intelligence backgrounds, were taking up higher-paid jobs in the burgeoning private security industry.

“I have lost two experienced inspectors over the past 18 months and faced considerable difficulty and delay recruiting replacements,” he said.

He added: “Four of my most experienced staff are either retiring or leaving in the next 12 months, compounding the difficulties we anticipate finding suitably qualified replacements and filling new posts.”

His inspectors were having to drive 12,000 miles a year to visit the plants, most of which were in isolated parts of the country “from Dounreay at the tip of Caithness to Dungeness in Kent”.

He said that he was aiming to increase staff numbers by six. “I consider these extra staff are essential if my office is to continue to regulate security in the civil nuclear industry comprehensively and effectively given the heightened terrorist threat prompted by last September’s attacks in the United States,” he said.

Richard Dixon, head of research at Friends of the Earth in Scotland, where five of the nuclear sites are located, said he was shocked by the report and that it was an open invitation to terrorists to come to Britain. “If I were a terrorist, looking at this report and scouting out what is happening with the nuclear industry across the world, I would be heading to Britain,” he said.

Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: “It is pointless for UK forces to be engaged in the fight against terrorism in the four corners of the globe if we do not have the resources to check nuclear sites in our own backyard.

“The security of the United Kingdom, and the British people, must always come first and if this means cutting back on overseas commitments then that must be done.

“The resources to fund inspections must be found.”

A spokeswoman for the DTI pointed out that Mr Buckland-Smith had concluded in his report that he was confident that stringent security precautions were in place.

Pete Roach, a campaigner for Greenpeace, said: “One of the things they seemed to be having to do at nuclear sites is just look at plans for security rather than carrying out tests for security.

“It is rather like giving someone a driving licence after they have done the written examination and not actually passed their driving test.

“They could carry out a proper emergency exercise rather than sitting down over a cup of coffee and looking at the nuclear operators’ plans for nuclear security.”

The MoD said yesterday that there was a proposal to close the nuclear weapons plant at Burghfield in Berkshire and to absorb all the research efforts at the 700-acre site at Aldermaston where the warheads for the Royal Navy’s Trident ballistic missiles were designed.

A spokeswoman denied a report that there were plans to build a bigger facility at Aldermaston in order to develop new nuclear weapons.

The Government is facing calls to clarify its policy on nuclear weapons development amid claims that it plans a huge, multimillion pound expansion of an atomic research plant.

An expanded facility at the Aldermaston site, in Berkshire, would be able to test, design and build a new generation of smaller nuclear weapons, which could be used against terrorist groups and rogue states, according to The Observer.

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