A secret plan to ship nuclear weapons grade uranium from northern Scotland to the US has been condemned as an “invitation to terrorists”.
The uranium is contained in five research reactor fuel assemblies that were airlifted in emergency out of the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 1998 to prevent them being stolen and made into nuclear bombs. The fuel was taken to Dounreay, where it has remained ever since.
But earlier this year the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a US nuclear transport company authorisation for a “one-time shipment” of the fuel before the end of 2016 (see below). “This shipment is in the interest of US national security,” said the NRC safety evaluation report.
Environmental groups, however, are alarmed at the prospect of moving “such highly dangerous radioactive material” around the world. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has also voiced concerns and demanded that the UK government “come clean” about the shipment.
According to the NRC, the shipment will consist of two fuel assemblies containing up to 720 grams of highly enriched uranium. The heavy metal has been treated to increase the proportion of the fissile isotope uranium-235 it contains to 90 per cent, making it usable as a nuclear explosive.
There will be three other fuel assemblies in the cargo containing around four kilograms of uranium enriched to 10 per cent. This is harder to make into nuclear weapons, but is still regarded as a concern for nuclear proliferation.
This is the fuel that was taken from a reactor at a physics research institute in Mtskheta, 15 kilometres from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, in a secretive US operation codenamed Auburn Endeavour in April 1998. The US government was worried at the time that it could have fallen into the hands of Chechen gangs or Iran.
Russia and France refused to take the fuel, but the UK’s then Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, agreed. After the operation was revealed by the New York Times, MPs were briefed about what had happened by Blair’s foreign minister, Doug Henderson.
The uranium was “inadequately protected” in Georgia, he said. “Given that highly enriched uranium of this type is ideally suited for use in a nuclear weapon, it was essential that it was moved to a secure location.”
Henderson also insisted that the “vast majority” of the fuel would be used to make medical isotope targets for five million cancer treatments. But that never happened, and most of the uranium is still stored at Dounreay, which says it is “just the warehouse for this material.”
UK officials say that the uranium will not be transported to the US by air, suggesting it will be moved by boat. At Prime Minister’s questions in the House of Commons earlier this month, the SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, raised allegations about plans to fly weapons-grade materials from Wick airport near Dounreay to the US.
“These latest revelations only raise more questions and unfortunately, more concerns for the public and local community in Caithness,” he said.
“The UK Government must now come clean over these transports, including the final destinations of these apparent shipments. People have a right to know if weapons grade uranium is being transported in their communities.”
We are just the warehouse for this material Dounreay
Martin Forwood from the anti-nuclear group, Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, has been monitoring the fate of the Georgian uranium at Dounreay for years. “Plans to remove this weapons-grade highly enriched uranium fuel from safety and ship it 4,000 miles across the Atlantic sends an open invitation to terrorists keen to get their hands on this prime terrorist material,” he said.
“Common sense dictates that such dangerous material should remain in the UK and not be deliberately and unnecessarily exposed to the significant safety and security risks encountered at sea and the hostile forces that the world faces today.”
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “The bean counters have really excelled themselves with this plan to transport highly dangerous radioactive material across an ocean for no good reason.”
He pointed out that the world had a glut of nuclear weapons. “So this bomb-grade material is of no use to anyone except terrorists,” he argued.
“It should be found a secure home in the UK instead of risking a journey of thousands of miles. The nuclear industry is in terminal decline and we should deal with its dangerous waste as locally as possible.”
They were backed by Tom Clements, director of Savannah River Site Watch, an environmental group in Columbia, South Carolina. “As the UK is a nuclear weapons state holding large stocks of weapon-usable materials, it serves no nuclear non-proliferation purpose to ship this material to the Savannah River Site,” he said.
“The additional land transport and the sea transport pose environmental and security risks that can easily be avoided by leaving the material in the UK.”
Clements suspected that the main motive of the US Department of Energy was financial. He thought the aim was to use it along with other research reactor material to keep fueling an ageing reprocessing plant at Savannah River for as long as possible.
He predicted that the shipment from Dounreay to Savannah River could also be touted as a victory for nuclear non-proliferation at a major nuclear security summit in Washington in March. “But such a proclamation will ring hollow,” he claimed.
This bomb-grade material is of no use to anyone except terrorists Dr Richard Dixon, Friends of the Earth Scotland
The NRC authorisation for the shipment from Dounreay was issued to the nuclear transport company, NAC International, at Norcross in the US state of Georgia, in February 2015. Permission had previously been given for the shipment in 2012-13 and in 2014, but it had not taken place.
UK authorities were very reluctant to talk about the planned shipment. Dounreay referred questions to the UK government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which is responsible for overseeing the dismantling and disposal of Britain’s historic nuclear operations.
An NDA spokesman said: “Any movement of material is subject to stringent regulations and can only take place if it complies with legislation and is authorised by the independent regulator.”
Dounreay is being decommissioned and closed, and the UK stock of nuclear material was being “consolidated” as agreed at previous nuclear security summits. “As part of this we regularly engage with local communities, site operators, the UK Government and Scottish Government,” said the NDA.
A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change in London said: “Any movement of nuclear material is subject to extremely stringent regulations that ensure safety and security.”
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 20 December 2015.