The UK’s Nuclear Terrorists

The British Government is increasing the dangers of nuclear proliferation

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 23rd April 1998.

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are absolutely right: there is a real and pressing danger that weapons-grade nuclear material will get into the wrong hands. Indeed, as I write, a dangerous and mendacious organisation, which is alleged to have killed people already and could kill many more, is about to get its hands on a consignment of bomb-grade uranium. The delivery will enhance its ability to terrorise the local population and hold its government to ransom. Having extracted hundreds of millions of pounds already, it will use the new consignment to demand many millions more from the hard-pressed natives of the island state it intimidates. I’m talking, of course, about the truculent, unruly faction, based in a fortified stronghold in a remote part of the world, known as the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

There’s no question that the world has a problem. Huge quantities of bomb-grade waste are languishing, poorly guarded, in research laboratories all over the former Soviet Union. The five kilos of enriched uranium sitting in a physics lab in Tbilisi, Georgia was simply crying out to be commandeered by one of the state’s guerilla armies and spirited away over an invisible border.

There’s also little doubt that responsible global governance involves doing something to sort this mess out. As Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, took such pains to point out on Radio 4 yesterday, the British government should help the United States to prevent the proliferation of bomb-grade nuclear material. So why the secrecy over our starring role as global policeman? Why did British people hear nothing about the government’s plans to fly the uranium to the Atomic Energy Authority’s plant at Dounreay on the north coast of Scotland, until the news was leaked to the New York Times? It wouldn’t have compromised state secrets to have consulted British people about the principle of the deal, before the uranium arrived. You don’t have look far to see why the government might have been so untypically modest about its latest contribution to world peace.

Dounreay is the most dangerous nuclear plant in Britain; possibly the most dangerous nuclear plant on earth, outside the former Eastern Bloc. Last year, it was forced to reveal the existence of a shaft above the crumbling coastal cliffs, into which it had been dumping uranium, plutonium and a number of potentially explosive materials. The shaft had erupted once and could explode again at any time. The revelation, the AEA claimed, marked a new culture of openness on its part: there would be no more cover-ups. Just two months later, a second hole was discovered at Dounreay, into which the plant is still dumping unsealed nuclear waste, despite the express instructions of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.

This week, the NII decided that it had had enough. From Tuesday, Dounreay was to stop importing foreign nuclear fuel for at least two years, pending the outcome of a major safety review. One can’t help suspecting that the United States government was not the only powerful agency Tony Blair was assisting by letting the uranium come to Britain. By allowing, even encouraging, Dounreay to break the new embargo within days of its announcement, he may have saved the plant from the closure it so richly deserves.

For Dounreay was established to do precisely what Britain’s intervention in Georgia is intended to prevent. Dounreay extracts (or extracted, until its decrepit reprocessing plant was closed 18 months ago), weapons-grade uranium and plutonium from nuclear waste. The reprocessing centre will now reopen in order to upgrade a consignment removed, we are told, to reduce the circulation of weapons grade material. Once reprocessed, it will almost certainly be sold abroad, probably to build another reactor, identical to the one which has caused so much panic in Georgia.

If Donald Dewar and his administration were truly intent upon honouring their international commitments, they would be making plans to mix the Georgian uranium with high level waste, rendering it permanently useless to bomb-makers, and seal it in glass for permanent storage. They would be persuading the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop helping to build new reactors in impoverished countries, and start helping those countries to clean up their existing mess.

But this decision has nothing to do with good global governance, and nothing to do with non-proliferation. It has everything to do with a cowardly government’s insatiable desire to please the powerful, while generating and distributing the most dangerous materials on earth.