- 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 sig nificant 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
- 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 con taminated
with plutonium from the Sellafield nuclear plant. The research, published
earlier this month, found traces of the radio active material in every
single milk tooth of 3000 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
- 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.