Could Terrorists Turn The UK Into A Nuclear Wasteland?

SGR statement released 16 November 2001

With the admission that "All plutonium can be used directly in nuclear explosives"[1,2] and the possibility of a plane crash on Sellafield creating a 200 to 700 kilometre exclusion zone[3] for a century (making large parts of Britain uninhabitable) with unimaginable human suffering, environmental damage and economic costs[4], Scientists for Global Responsibility [5] calls for an urgent and comprehensive review of the risks of continuing to operate the Sellafield nuclear facilities.

Nuclear power is often portrayed as the clean alternative to fossil fuels with no mention of the potential cost of damage of nuclear fuels and waste.

Whilst the threat of terrorists making a nuclear bomb from stolen plutonium is of great concern, it is clear that much more devastation could result from a more conventional attack.

Recent analyses of the effect of a plane crashing onto the storage buildings of Sellafield indicate a release of far larger amounts of radioactivity[6] than occurred in the Chernobyl disaster, with proportionately[7] larger exclusion zones.

It is clear that Sellafield has no defence against such a plane crash, either accidental or as a deliberate act of terrorism. An accurate hit by a plane would quite realistically cause sufficient breach of storage facilities to produce 50% loss of Caesium-137 and other exceedingly dangerous waste, causing these exclusion zones. For the next century at least, the land in those zones would be unusable for habitation, cultivation or even travelling across. These areas would cover much of central UK but may extend to other European countries, and 'tolerable' contamination would extend far beyond the exclusion zones, eventually covering the world in the same way that Chernobyl affected farming the UK and elsewhere.

The effects in terms of rapid loss of life and long term trends in deaths from the effects of mutations and cancers and would be far greater, environmental damage would be severe, and the world economy would be damaged for several generations.

Such a situation cannot be ruled out, and the official attitude of ignoring risk for commercial reasons is totally unacceptable. The infrastructure required for storing, processing and moving nuclear materials is in acute need of review.

SGR therefore calls for an urgent and comprehensive review of the risks of continuing to maintain a British nuclear industry, and that such a review should:

  • Consider in full the undeniable risks of terrorism and accidents associated with these industries, and
  • Reappraise the effective public subsidy that the UK nuclear industry continues to enjoy

and in the light of these, re-evaluate the still limited support which renewable energy and energy-efficiency measures get from the UK Government. In addition SGR urges that

  • BNFL face in full, and not be protected from, its estimated £34 billion bill[8] for decommissioning of old reactors and disposal of waste.
  • Immediate measures should be implemented to counter terrorist or accidental breaches of high-level waste storage facilities or nuclear power facilities anywhere in Britain and to determine and acknowledge any other aspects of the industry where accidents could cause massive danger to life.



For brevity, the report ' Report on the Legal Liabilities for Civil Plutonium Incidents' is referred to here as RLLCPI.

[1] Selden, R. W., Reactor Plutonium and Nuclear Explosives, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, California, 1976: "All plutonium can be used directly in nuclear explosives. The concept of [...] plutonium which is not suitable for explosives is fallacious. A high content of the plutonium 240 isotope (reactor-grade plutonium) is a complication, but not a preventative."

[2] Letter from The Former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Hans Blix to the Nuclear Control Institute, Washington DC, 1990: "considers high burn-up reactor-grade plutonium and in general plutonium of any isotopic be capable of use in a nuclear explosive device. There is no debate on the matter in the Agency's Department of Safeguards." "Having obtained plutonium oxide from the plutonium store at Sellafield or a MOX fuel assembly by diversion or theft, a terrorist group would have little difficulty in making a crude atomic bomb. If plutonium oxide (PuO2) itself is stolen it could be used directly to produce a nuclear explosive or converted into plutonium (Pu) metal, which could then be used to make a nuclear explosive.", from the RLLCPI.

[3] Based on a scaled up Chernobyl-type release of Caesium-137, 200km immediate exclusion zone with up to 700 km exclusion zone downwind. This pattern is very dependent upon weather conditions, though. Chernobyl had a 30 km radius exclusion zone and distances of up to 100 km required evacuation depending upon weather conditions (Something in the Wind, Politics After Chernobyl, chapter 2, R Erskine & P Webber, Eds Mackay and Thompson, Pluto Press, 1988). If 50% of the stored Caesium-137 (an isotope used as a representative of typical radioactivity) stored at Sellafield was released, this would be approximately 45-50 times the Chernobyl release, which would produce an exclusion zone described. The amount of Caesium-137 stored at Sellafield in the B215 building and is approximately 100 times the quantity released at Chernobyl, see

[4] RLLCPI. Extracts: 'Western commentators have estimated the direct cost [of Chernobyl] to be in the order of £6 Billion' 'The Head of the Soviet Fire Service, making an estimate including long-term costs of treating those suffering from radiation sickness and other illnesses [resulting from Chernobyl], calculated a figure of £200 Billion' [Emphasis added] ' Medevev concludes that the Chernobyl accident was the "most expensive industrial accident in modern history"' A far larger accident over a much more densely populated area such as Britain and parts of Europe would be hugely more expensive than Chernobyl.

[5] Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) is an independent UK organisation of scientists committed to the ethical use of science and technology. For further information see the SGR website.

[6] Using Caesium-137 as a measure - this isotope is treated as representative of general radioactive contamination in nuclear accidents

[7] Areal contamination grows in proportion to the quantity of the contaminant, the radius of the exclusion zone grows approximately in proportion to the square root of these, all else being equal.

[8] 'BNFL has liabilities of £34bn for decommissioning its ageing nuclear power stations and disposing of radioactive waste over the next 100 years', (The Sunday Telegraph 21/10/2001)