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Cancer deaths fear from terror hit

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Nuclear power
Great Britain
Acts of terror
September 11 attacks

LONDON, England -- A successful terrorist plot to crash a hijacked airliner into the Sellafield nuclear energy plant could cause hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths across the British Isles, experts have warned.

Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist from the Oxford Research Group think-tank, said a September 11-style terrorist attack would cause 210,000 deaths for each of Sellafield's 14 tanks used to store high-level radioactive waste.

The scenario was outlined in a report submitted to the UK government's review of Britain's energy policy, which is considering whether to build new atomic power stations.

Barnaby said it would be "grossly irresponsible" to expand atomic power and thus extend the risk of nuclear terrorism, according to the Press Association.

He based his death toll estimate on public information about the amount of the cesium-137 radioisotope stored at the plant in Cumbria, northwest England, compared with the amounts of the same isotope released by the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 and its subsequent fatalities.

The report said: "Scaling up the calculated Sellafield release to the Chernobyl accident suggests that a terrorist attack on the high-level waste tanks could result worldwide in about 210,000 fatal cancers per tank.

"Depending on the strength and direction of the winds at the time of the release of the radioactivity, these deaths will occur in the United Kingdom, Ireland and parts of Europe and perhaps even further afield.

"If a terrorist attack used a commercial jet airliner more than one tank may be involved."

He said the decision to build new nuclear reactors would "considerably enhance" the risk of proliferating nuclear weapons to other countries and to terrorists.

"In today's world, in which fundamentalist terrorists are active and likely to become more active, to increase the risk of nuclear terrorism is, to say the least, grossly irresponsible," he said.

Barnaby has worked at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, been director of the the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and held professorships at the Free University of Amsterdam and the University of Minnesota.

He said more than one tank at Sellafield would be likely to be destroyed in a commercial airliner hijack.

"The crash would create an enormous fireball which would vaporize everything," he said.

"If we concentrate on cesium-137 -- the most dangerous to human health -- it would go up in the fireball and blow downwind."

Disaster averted

Sellafield has 21 water-cooled tanks used to store fission products from the two sites' reprocessing plants, said the report, but seven are normally kept in reserve in case one of the others needs to be emptied.

Sellafield, formerly Windscale, is the site of the world's first commercial scale nuclear power station, Calder Hall, which was opened in 1956. It also has two reprocessing plants to reprocess waste from other nuclear power stations in Britain and overseas.

In the 1970s following an accident in a plutonium handling compartment at Sellafield, some metal was spilt in a lump to start a nuclear reaction. Quick action by staff prevented a disaster.

The latest report also raised the possibility of terrorists attacking a reactor or spent fuel pond by:

  • Crashing a light aircraft or truck filled with high explosives into the facilities
  • Attacking it with missiles, artillery or small arms
  • Sabotaging from inside by using infiltrators, perhaps by draining coolant from the reactor core as happened at the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in the United States in 1979
  • Attacking power lines carrying electricity into the plant. It added: "The buildings containing the spent fuel ponds are less well protected than the reactor and are, therefore, more attractive targets than the reactor building."
  • The Department for Trade and Industry's energy review is due to report to Prime Minister Tony Blair in the summer.

    But some anti-nuclear campaigners fear Blair has already decided to commit Britain to a new generation of nuclear power.

    In January, a Greenpeace campaign film depicted terrorists crashing a passenger plane into a nuclear power station.

    The 45-second video showed a family on a beach when a plane screams over them and smashes into Sizewell nuclear plant in Suffolk, eastern England.

    It then warns: "Do we really want more nuclear power stations? Tell Tony Blair nuclear power is not the answer to climate change." British Nuclear Fuels said it would not dignify the video with a full response, and condemned the film as "distasteful."

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