- SUBSTANTIAL quantities of deadly plutonium
from Britain's nuclear stockpile are officially "unaccounted for",
according to figures released by the Government.
- In the past 25 years, more than 80 kilograms
have become unaccounted for at Sellafield alone. Smaller quantities are
missing at other UK nuclear sites.
- The missing material is "reactor-grade"
plutonium used in nuclear power stations, not the "weapons-grade"
quality normally used for military purposes. But it could still be used
to make nuclear weapons, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency,
the main body charged with monitoring the world's nuclear stockpiles.
- The pressure groups Friends of the Earth
and CND claim that the missing plutonium is enough to make more than a
dozen primitive nuclear explosive devices.
- The issue of plutonium dispersal has
become more urgent, campaigners say, because of British Nuclear Fuels'
plans to recycle some plutonium in so-called "mixed oxide" or
MOX fuel. Friends of the Earth claims that MOX, which will be exported
from Sellafield, will also have weapons potential and poses a major security
risk of plutonium falling into the wrong hands. A report by the Government's
Environment Agency on whether to give the go-ahead for the MOX plant at
Sellafield is expected soon.
- Dr Rachel Western, FoE's senior nuclear
research officer, said: "This material must be treated with far greater
care, given the huge health and security risks involved in its dispersal."
- But Andy Munn, spokesman for the UK Atomic
Energy Authority - which last year reported 6.4 kilograms of plutonium
unaccounted for - said the figures did not necessarily mean that the material
had been lost or stolen. The apparent losses were mainly caused by "margins
of error in the counting process", he said. Plutonium going through
reprocessing plants is not always in a form in which it can be physically
measured, so its presence had to be calculated, he said. "At each
stage of the process as it is chopped up, dissolved or whatever, calculations
are made of how much plutonium there is. We can't calculate this totally
- However, Mr Munn admitted that "losses
have happened - sometimes a fuel rod gets lodged somewhere and avoids the
processing line". But he said that this was still safe because there
was no way the plutonium could escape from the heavily-shielded radiation
- BNFL said it would be "technically
very difficult" to make a nuclear weapon from MOX material, and virtually
impossible to do it covertly. Its new MOX plant, the company said, was
designed to "the highest standards of international nuclear safeguards,
using state-of-the-art monitoring and accountancy systems".
- Concern about the spread of plutonium,
one of the most dangerous substances on Earth, has increased in recent
years. Inhaling or swallowing even a small quantity causes cancer. The
"materials unaccounted for" figures issued by the UKAEA, British
Nuclear Fuels and the Government only cover the civil nuclear industry.
- Accounting problems in the stockpile
of "weapons-grade" plutonium held by the Ministry of Defence
- which is top secret and not covered by any public statistics - may be
even more serious. A leading expert in the field, Professor William Walker
of St Andrews University, said the MoD did not know exactly how much plutonium
and enriched uranium it had. Controls were likely to be less rigorous in
the military sector because it was not subject to any form of external
scrutiny or "safeguarding".
- "Even if the MoD wished to declare
Britain's inventories, it would be unable to do so, since it cannot know
what those inventories comprise without conducting a thorough review of
production history," said Prof Walker. Insufficient effort had been
made to establish precisely how much plutonium had been produced for the
MoD, he said.