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Sellafield nuclear plant could be prime target for terrorists

Experts warn of possible plane attacks

Special report: terrorism in the US

Tania Branigan Tuesday September 18, 2001 The Guardian

Nuclear reprocessing plants at Sellafield in Cumbria and Cap de la Hague in Normandy could be prime terrorist targets, experts warned yesterday, as the conference of the international watchdog on atomic energy opened in Vienna. With the New York and Washington attacks dominating discussions, Spencer Abraham, the US energy secretary, warned that fanatics could wreak havoc by destroying plants or stealing materials to build their own weapons.

Governments around the world have put their facilities on maximum security, but officials admitted that little could be done to protect them from airborne threats which could cause a "Chernobyl situation".

"We cannot assume that tomorrow's terrorist acts will mirror those we've just experienced," Mr Abraham told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference. "Clearly, terrorists will attack any target, so no one will be immune. And clearly terrorists will use any method."

He added: "The terrible events of last week demonstrate in the clearest possible fashion the importance of maintaining the highest levels of security over nuclear materials.

"We expect the members of this body to prohibit nuclear exports in cases where there is a significant risk of diversion."

But delegates from the 132 member nations acknowledged that their ability to shield facilities is limited.

"It is practically impossible to protect nuclear plants to the extent needed to withstand the sort of attack we saw last week," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the IAEA.

"Consideration was given to the possibility of a plane crashing into them when they were designed and built. But over 20 years later, we have planes that are almost twice as big and are going on long-haul flights able to carry tonnes of fuel."

Dr Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist working for the Oxford Research Group, warned that Sellafield and Cap de la Hague were likely targets because they are home to the only reprocessing plants in Europe outside Russia.

"What are very big risks are the huge tanks of very, very radioactive liquid stored in reprocessing plants," he said.

"They contain a huge amount of radioactivity and are less well-protected than reactors, which are within very large concrete shields."

A spokesman for British Nuclear Fuels said both reactors and reprocessing plants were "extremely robust" and were designed to withstand accidents, including plane crashes.

But a US official, who declined to be named, said that a direct hit from an airliner could cause a "Chernobyl situation". Although it would not destroy a reactor, it could cause meltdown by damaging its cooling systems, allowing the fuel rods to overheat.

Dr Barnaby also warned that the proposed mixed oxide (Mox) plant at Sellafield, which is expected to get the go-ahead from the Department of Environment this week, would be another prime target, because it would provide a simple source of material for bombs.

"It's crazy to give permission to open a Mox plant under these circumstances," he said.,3604,553753,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (, September 17, 2001

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