Shipping Plutonium Around the World

Britain is transporting vast amounts of plutonium across the ocean as part of a commercial deal with Japan. It's a recipe for nuclear disaster.

The world now faces two imminent nuclear threats. The first is the stand-off between India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers vacillating on the brink of war. The second arises from a commercial deal between the United Kingdom and Japan.

At the end of this week, two British ships will pull into the port of Takahama to collect enough plutonium to make 17 atomic bombs. Although the transport of nuclear material within Japan has been halted during the World Cup, as there are not enough police to guarantee its safety, the power behind this shipment permits no such considerations. The plutonium will be transported 18,000 miles through some of the roughest and most dangerous seas on earth back to Britain, where it will be repacked and returned to Japan.

The security of the shipment has been described by the definitive defense briefing, Jane's Foreign Report, as "totally inadequate". Britain and Japan are to launch, in the form of the two freighters carrying the material, a pair of floating dirty bombs, waiting for a detonator. And they are doing so for reasons that have nothing to do with economics and nothing to do with defense, but everything to do with a politics which is as mad and dangerous as their mission.

The cargo they will collect is a consignment of mixed plutonium and uranium oxides -- Mox for short -- which was delivered by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd to Japan, where it was to have been used as reactor fuel. The Japanese discovered that BNFL had falsified its records, and demanded that the company retrieve it.

BNFL, which is a state-owned company, must comply if it is not to lose future markets for its Mox fuel. It must defend those markets in order to justify the government's decision in October to allow the Mox plant at Sellafield in Cumbria to open. The Mox plant opened in order to make sense of the reprocessing operations at Sellafield, which extract plutonium and uranium from nuclear waste. The reprocessing was permitted in order to provide a reason for Sellafield's continued existence. Sellafield exists in order to keep the British nuclear power program running. The British nuclear power program exists because ... well, it exists because it exists. There may once have been a reason, but if so it has been lost in the mists of time.

Britain's nuclear policy, in other words, is like the old woman who swallowed a fly. Every solution is worse than the problem it was supposed to address. Every new justification ratchets up the probability of a major nuclear accident or breach of security. Yet the program's institutional momentum carries all before it.

This program can sustain itself only until the public grasps the two unavoidable facts of nuclear power. The first is that there is, as yet, no safe means of disposing of the wastes it produces. The second is that even if one were found, the monitoring and safe management of these wastes requires 250,000 years of political and economic stability. No government on earth can guarantee five.

It is the British government's attempts to prevent us from grasping these truths which now expose the world to the threat of both nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Reprocessing has bequeathed to the UK the biggest plutonium stockpile in the world: 60 tons of our own, and 10 tons of other people's. The entire stock, as the government's security review board discovered in January, is stored at Sellafield in buildings scarcely more robust than garden sheds. Thirteen kilograms of plutonium is enough to make an atom bomb.

Turning this plutonium into Mox is presented as the solution to proliferation. Unhappily, it introduces four further problems. The first is that the Mox process generates still more nuclear waste. The second is that, like every other aspect of the nuclear industry, it costs far more to produce, when all expenses are taken into account, than it can ever recoup. The third is that hardly anyone wants to buy it, as most nuclear power stations use the safer and much cheaper low-enriched uranium. The fourth is that the only certain market is on the other side of the world.

Japan has its own warped institutional reasons for engaging in this trade. Its fast-breeder program, which was to have used the plutonium extracted from the waste it sent to Sellafield for reprocessing, collapsed after an accident in 1995. But it remains contractually bound to BNFL to reimport its plutonium. So it has asked the company to turn it into Mox, which it can use (at considerable hazard) in its light water reactors.

The dirty bombs BNFL is about to launch on the high seas will be, it hopes, among the first of many. To avoid creating the impression that this freight might possibly be dangerous, Japan has insisted that the ships have no military escort. They have weapons on board, but neither the radar-guided anti-missile defenses nor the speed required to evade an attack by a fast boat.

To spread plutonium across an entire region, terrorists need only send a missile or boat like the one Bin Laden used to attack the USS Cole, equipped with the right explosives, into the side of one of the freighters. The Mox fuel is stored in containers which can resist temperatures of 800C for 30 minutes. Fires on ships, as the Ecologist magazine has pointed out, can burn for 24 hours at 1,000C.

Stealing the material is a matter of overwhelming the 26 British policemen on board and blowing the hatches off, a task well within the capabilities of several terrorist groups and all of the world's aspirant nuclear states. The plutonium and uranium can be separated with chemical processes less taxing than the manufacture of designer drugs.

So the UK and Japan are investing billions in security, and billions in insecurity. Neither government dares challenge the nuclear monster it has created. Using taxpayers' money to charm, cajole and threaten both the government and the taxpayer, this self-serving, self-reproducing industry, which makes nothing which could not be made more cheaply elsewhere, has secured such resources, such concessions, such flat contradictions of policy that we have ended up sponsoring the major threat to our own security.

When power resides with private companies, the British government will nest with them and raise their young. When it resides with a state-owned monster which would not have looked out of place in Brezhnev's Russia, the same government will happily mate with that monster. One moment it will warn of such threats to our security that the police must have access to our e-mail accounts, protesters must be classified as terrorists and Afghanistan must be bombed; the next it will dismiss such concerns as nonsense in order to ship plutonium round the world in civilian freighters.

The nuclear industry must be destroyed before it destroys us. We must, in other words, wrench political power away from nuclear power.

George Monbiot is a weekly columnist for The Guardian (UK). You can read his other writings at

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