Arrests at UK's Sellafield nuclear plant raise concerns about security

The five men who were arrested outside the Sellafield nuclear plant have been released without charge. But the incident has turned attention to nuclear facilities' security.

David Moir/Reuters
A view of the Sellafield nuclear power plant near Seascale in Cumbria is seen in this April 12 file photo. British police said on Tuesday they had arrested five men close to the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in northwest England under counter-terrorism laws.

The arrest of five men whose actions aroused suspicion outside Britain’s Sellafield nuclear plant on Monday has increased fears of terrorist reprisals in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden.

The five men, who all live in London and are of Bangladeshi origin, were detained just hours after Mr. bin Laden’s death was announced.

According to the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC), which polices Britain’s nuclear facilities, the men were stopped as part of a routine patrol near the perimeter of the Sellafield plant and were “unable to give a satisfactory account of their actions.” They were arrested under the Terrorism Act and questioned, then released without charge.

Nonetheless, with the West on heightened alert after bin Laden’s death, the incident will raise concerns about the security of Europe’s nuclear facilities and their ability to defend themselves from potential attack.

Ian Farnan, a leading expert on nuclear power at the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University, described security at Britain’s nuclear plants as robust. “It would be a really hard job to take on one of these power plants,” he said. “A far easier way to distribute nuclear material would be to procure it abroad, perhaps the former Soviet Central Asia, and bring it into the country. You could then take that into the center of a city.”

Documents released by the antiprivacy website WikiLeaks last month revealed claims by an Al Qaeda commander that the organization was in possession of a nuclear bomb, which it would detonate in Europe in the event of bin Laden’s assassination.

As for breaching the security of Europe’s nuclear reactors, Dr. Farnan, who worked as part of a NATO group set up to analyze security at Britain’s nuclear plants back in 2003, believed it was unlikely to occur. “The big concern back then, not long after 2001, was aircraft,” he explained. “The reactor is inside a hardened concrete structure. It’s so thick it’s unlikely to be penetrated by an aircraft. So if you’re looking at dispersal of nuclear material as your objective, that’s not what you’re going to do.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, the group had also looked at the idea of a suicide attacker, said Farnan. “We came to the conclusion that in order to get to the radioactive material you would have to be more than a suicide bomber, you would have to be a suicide commando, someone with the know-how to get far enough into the facility to get access to the nuclear material.” The possibility of such an attack was very remote, he said.

A spokesman for the CNC said its security and policing arrangements were reviewed “on a regular basis as part of continuous improvement”. He added: “We are confident of the security of our sites.”

Sellafield is by far the UK’s largest nuclear facility. It contains considerable quantities of plutonium and is one of only four reprocessing plants in the world.

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