Western Daily Press, 30 March 2006

Train loads of nuclear waste carried through a Somerset town could be a prime target for terrorists, it was claimed yesterday.

The transport of radioactive material through Bridgwater has been highlighted as Britain's "weak link" by eminent nuclear engineer John Large. Spent fuel rods from Hinkley Point B nuclear power station are transferred to the rail network at a station in the town.

"The loading point at Bridgwater stands out like a sore thumb as the weak link, " said Mr Large.

"What is so unusual at Bridgwater is that it takes place in the middle of a town, and right next to a primary school too." This could make it a prime target for terrorists who want to make a "dirty bomb".


The Transfer of nuclear waste through a West town has been highlighted as the country's "weak link" and could be targeted by terrorists putting hundreds of lives at risk. An eminent nuclear engineer who looked at the risks of transporting radioactive material across the country by train said Bridgwater "sticks out like a sore thumb".

John Large fears the transfer of spent fuel rods in specially made flasks from Hinkley Point B nuclear power station on to the rail network at Bridgwater could be the most attractive target for terrorists hell-bent on producing a "dirty bomb".

Were one of the flasks successfully attacked with armour-piercing missiles or explosives, he warned that - depending on weather conditions - as many as 400 people could die as a result of the contamination over a 50-year period.

He has also pointed out the potential dangers if the nuclear trains were, through deliberate sabotage or accident, to catch fire in a tunnel.

The extreme and prolonged temperatures created could, Mr Large believes, breach the flasks and release radioactive material.

Greenpeace commissioned the study and has highlighted Wickwar train tunnel in South Gloucestershire as one of five in the country located near enough to a major city to be of a serious concern.

In the worse-case scenario, Mr Large has predicted a death toll that could be around 1,500 or as low as a few dozen over the 50-year span. The nuclear industry and Bridgwater MP Ian Liddell-Grainger yesterday rejected Mr Large's findings, saying the flasks were built and tested to withstand major knocks, including being hit by a high-speed train.

But Mr Large stands by his work.

The transfer from flat-bed lorries from Hinkley to special trains - operated by Direct Rail Services - at Bridgwater has been taking place since the early 1970s. But they still take over four hours to complete and happen within yards of homes and a primary school.

As well as raising concerns about an apparent lack of security at the site, Mr Large warned there does not appear to be any specific emergency plans to deal with such a situation in the Somerset town.

A member of the British Nuclear Engineering Society, he was awarded a commendation by the Russian government for his contribution to the salvage of the sunken nuclear Kursk submarine. Although a well-respected academic in the field, the nuclear industry believe him to be fundamentally anti-nuclear power.

He admitted he was considering a worst-case scenario, but said the factors that made Bridgwater a prime target could not be ignored.

There are four other locations in the UK where nuclear power stations do not have their own railheads for moving waste material on to the rails to be taken to the Sellafield reprocessing plant. But the Somerset town is the only place where the transfer takes place in a built up area. "What is so unusual at Bridgwater is that it takes place in the middle of a town, and right next to a primary school too, " he said. "It's a unique situation and a location that is very accessible.

I was able to go down and have a look at it.

"I went down there and could see no sign of any extraordinary security precautions. The loading point at Bridgwater stands out like a sore thumb as the weak link. The terrorist will seek out the weakest link and most vulnerable point in the system.

Last year security experts raised concerns about the slow movement and temporary delays of trains transporting nuclear material from Dungeness and Sizewell power stations when they meet at Willsden junction station in London. Mr Large said that, in many ways, Bridgwater offers a more tempting target for those who wish to unleash the contents of the nuclear flasks.

"If you attack a fuel flask the material itself becomes the bomb, it's an easy way of producing a dirty bomb, " he said.

"From my experience I would say a nuclear target is very attractive because of the public perception of all things nuclear. People think contamination is a fate worse than death and an attack would have maximum psychological and economic impact as well as its health consequences."

A spokesman for British Energy, which operates Hinkley B, said he could not comment on the specific case of security at Bridgwater, but said: "We take security very seriously and work very closely with the Office for Civil Nuclear Security." Rail operator DRS declined to give security details, but said they are maintained to the standard laid out by the Government's Office of Civil Nuclear Security (OCNS).

"The safety record of moving used nuclear fuel by rail is exemplary, " said a spokesman. "As far as security is concerned, DRS conducts its operations in full compliance with standards approved by OCNS, who are satisfied that the measures in place are robust in order to prevent the unauthorised removal or sabotage of the material. The threats to such movements are constantly reviewed - in the event that a credible threat were to be detected, appropriate action would be taken.

"All used nuclear fuel is transported in heavily shielded, purpose-built containers constructed from forged steel, more than 30cm thick and each flask typically weighs more than 50 tonnes.

"The flask testing criteria - including those simulating a fully engulfing fire and a flask dropping from a bridge or similar structure - are designed to simulate very severe accident and incidents." But, in his report, Mr Large argued there is already evidence that would-be terrorists have been sizing up nuclear installations and that an attack on fuel flasks severe enough to release their contents cannot be ruled out.

"Experiments and tests on actual flasks included in this work show spent fuel flasks are vulnerable to fire and explosive attack, " he insisted.

However, Mr Liddell-Grainger, who has kept abreast of the nuclear safety issues at Hinkley and Bridgwater since becoming MP, is far from convinced. "These things are tested to huge extremes." he said. "If there was any kind of risk to Bridgwater, trust me I would be the first person screaming and yelling about it."


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