Enough plutonium for five bombs ‘missing' at Sellafield

The Sunday Herald, December 28, 2003
By Liam McDougall

Original address: http://www.sundayherald.com/38953

[Posted 29/12/2003]

Enough plutonium to make five nuclear bombs has gone missing from Sellafield in Cumbria in the past 12 months, it has been revealed. The official report which lists “materials unaccounted for” at the UK 's nuclear sites found that 19.1kg of the highly toxic substance was apparently missing from the reprocessing plant.

At the Dounreay plant in Caithness , meanwhile, the annual audit recorded a surplus 1.16kg of highly enriched uranium, which can also be used to make nuclear weapons.

Spokesmen for each plant were quick to play down the figures, saying they were estimates and “gave rise to no concern over either the safety or security” of the sites. But independent nuclear experts have expressed concern.

A look back at Sellafield's records reveals that auditors have found large quantities of plutonium regularly unaccounted for. Although the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority does not have a complete record of its annual nuclear materials balance on its website, Sellafield was found to have 5.6kg of plutonium unaccounted for in 2001 and as much as 24.9kg in 1999.

After the latest figures were revealed, Dr Frank Barnaby, a nuclear consultant who used to work at the Aldermaston atomic weapons factory in Berkshire , said: “In reprocessing, a small amount of material is bound to be lost in the process, but 19kg is a very significant amount of plutonium. The company might say this is not a cause for concern, but if they cannot be sure where the plutonium is, how can they say it has not been stolen?

“If a terrorist group were to claim it had stolen 5kg of plutonium from Sellafield, the authorities could not say with any certainty that they had not taken it. It's a very unsatisfactory situation indeed. This amount of material could be made into five or six nuclear weapons.”

John Large, a nuclear engineer who advised the Soviet Union following the Kursk submarine disaster, described Sellafield's figure as “a very serious shortfall”.

“If it's an accounting lapse, then maybe it never existed in the first place, but it's worrying. The inventory controls for plutonium are extremely tight."

“British Nuclear Fuels [the company that runs Sellafield] needs to be more accountable. It cannot simply record that it has a 19kg deficit and simply say there is no cause for concern.”

Dr Dan Barlow, head of research at Friends of the Earth Scotland, also said he believed the situation was unsatisfactory.

“The fact that material such as this is unaccounted for, whether lost or in surplus, is of deep concern. No other industry would be allowed to get away with such poor industrial practices. For bomb-grade material to go missing in such large quantities has to be a cause for concern. The question of where this material has gone is one that demands an answer.”

The latest criticisms of the nuclear industry come after scientists found the teeth of children in Northern Ireland were contaminated with plutonium from the Sellafield nuclear plant. The research, published earlier this month, found traces of the radioactive material in every single milk tooth of 3,000 children studied.

Scientists believe leaks and discharges into the sea have put the material into the food chain over recent decades. The day after the research was published, British Nuclear Fuels admitted that “lightly radioactively contaminated” pipes from Sellafield had been washing up on beaches in Northern Ireland.

Spokesman Alan Hughes said the figures for “unaccounted for” plutonium were normal.

“It is impossible to measure absolutely exactly that amount of material going into the plant and the amount coming out because of the changes material undergoes in the process.

“There is also a degree of uncertainty in the measuring process and some material may remain in the internal pipe system. We would expect to see a slightly larger figure at Sellafield than for other reprocessing plants because of the huge amount of material that is put through it each year.”

When asked how he could be sure no substances had been taken away from the plant, Hughes said the strict security measures employed at Sellafield would make it “virtually impossible” for radioactive material to be stolen.