Britain’s stocks of plutonium are kept in “unacceptable” conditions and pose a severe safety and security risk, experts warn today.
The Royal Society says ministers must urgently review the way more than 100 tonnes of the radioactive element, separated during the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, is held at the Sellafield complex in Cumbria. The society, Britain’s premier scientific academy, says a previous warning to the government has been ignored, and that the rise of international terrorism means the UK must now find a way to use or dispose of the material.
Plutonium is highly toxic and is the primary component of most nuclear bombs. In a report published today, the society says a well-informed terrorist group could turn a small amount of the stockpiled material into a crude atomic weapon.
Professor Geoffrey Boulton, chair of the group that wrote the report, said: “The status quo of continuing to stockpile separated plutonium without any long-term strategy for its use or disposal is not an acceptable option. The Royal Society initially raised concerns about the security risks nine years ago, and we have not seen any progress. The stockpile has grown while international nuclear proliferation and terrorist threats have increased.”
The amount of plutonium stored at Sellafield has nearly doubled in the last decade to 103 tonnes. A quarter has been separated for foreign countries and companies. Prof Boulton said: “Just over 6kg of plutonium was used in the bomb which devastated Nagasaki, and the UK has many thousands of times that amount. We must ensure this very dangerous material does not fall into the wrong hands.”
The scientists who mind the Doomsday Clock on Wednesday moved it two minutes closer to midnight — symbolising the annihilation of civilisation — adding the perils of global warming for the first time to acute nuclear threats.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which created the Doomsday Clock in 1947 to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons, advanced the clock to five minutes until midnight. It was the first adjustment of the clock since 2002.
“We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age,” the group said in a statement.
They pointed to North Korea’s first test of a nuclear weapon last year, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, U.S. flirtation with “bunker buster” nuclear bombs, the continued presence of 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia and inadequate security for nuclear materials.
But the scientists also said the destruction of human habitats wreaked by climate change brought on by human activities is a growing danger to humankind.
“Global warming poses a dire threat to human civilisation that is second only to nuclear weapons,” they said.
The operators of Sellafield nuclear plant have been fined £500,000 following a radioactive leak.
About 83,000 tonnes of acid containing 20 tonnes of uranium and 160kg of plutonium escaped from a broken pipe.
The material leaked into a sealed concrete holding site and no radiation escaped from the plant.
No one was injured in the leak at the reprocessing plant in west Cumbria.
British Nuclear Group Sellafield, which runs the plant, was handed the fine at Carlisle Crown Court.
The court heard the leak should have been detected within days rather than the eight months it took.
The operators of two nuclear power plants have each been fined £2m over radioactive spillages, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority revealed today.
The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) was penalised over an incident at Dounreay in Caithness, last September.
And BNG Sellafield was fined for a radioactive leak at its Thorp reprocessing plant in Cumbria, in April last year.
The penalties will be imposed in the form of £2m deductions from money that the authority pays the operators.
Foreign companies are in pole position to scoop tens of billions of pounds in contracts to build new nuclear reactors and decommission old ones. The trade union Amicus has expressed concerns that UK firms will also miss out when Britain’s state-owned nuclear companies are sold off later this year and the lucrative contracts are handed out.
Union officials have complained that the bidding process for £70bn of clean-up work is “rigged”. They claim UK companies are at a disadvantage in comparison with US firms, since they face restrictions on operating in the US nuclear market. Similar restrictions do not apply to American companies in the UK.
Nuclear power may have to be embraced in a bid to combat climate change even though it is not a “sustainable” energy source, Margaret Beckett has admitted.
The environment secretary said she was very reluctant to build new nuclear power stations, but that she had “accepted that it could happen”.
But Mrs Beckett said any investment in nuclear must not be at the expense of renewable energy sources.
An energy policy review is set to be announced early this week.
I always remember as a kid watching all the CND marches on TV and how Nuclear Power was bad and we weren’t going to open any more plants. Well we didn’t bother coming up with enough alternatives, so now we have no choice.
After all, those wind farms just spoil the view don’t they, and solar panels make your house look silly. Who needs sustainable energy anyway?