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Sellafield's missing plutonium.

Byline: By Guy Basnett

Environmentalists have accused bosses at the Sellafield nuclear plant of not keeping track of dangerous material after it emerged that 30kg of plutonium had gone missing.

The radioactive material ( enough for seven nuclear bombs ( was shown to be missing from the Cumbrian site during an annual check of Britain's civilian plants.

British Nuclear Group (BNG) said the unaccounted material was down to uncertainties in the measurement system, and insisted no material had left the site.

But environmental groups described the loss of what would be a prime target for terrorists as extremely worrying, and said it demonstrates the plant's failure to keep track of highly dangerous material.

In 2003, Sellafield, which reprocesses spent fuel and employs more than 10,000 workers, revealed that there was 19kg of plutonium unaccounted for. Plutonium makes up 1pc of the nuclear material handled ( the rest is uranium.

Guidelines issued by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) say that material unaccounted for must not exceed 3pc of the amount that is processed. The 30kg would equate to 0.1pc of the total processed at Sellafield.

However Martin Forwood, campaign coordinator for Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), said: "This is a substantial amount of what is prime terrorist bomb-making material. It's quite extraordinary that they can lose this quantity of plutonium," he said.

Mr Forwood added that the losses seem to be increasing "year on year". Figures now show a cumulative loss of about 50kg from the plant in the last five years.

"I accept it's probably quite difficult to measure the quantity that is being put through the plants and I accept there will be discrepancies of a few grams," he said.

"But we are talking about seven nuclear bombs worth of plutonium."

Jean McSorley, nuclear campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, said: "After 50 years of business we would have thought Sellafield could have improved their plutonium assessment to the point where it's not such a hit and miss affair."

Keeping track of nuclear material involves calculations at each stage of the re-processing, which involves cutting up spent nuclear fuel rods, dissolving them in acid and separating the solution into three streams of uranium, plutonium and high-level waste. The aim is for the weight of the plutonium taken out to balance estimates of the amount put in.

A spokesman for BNG said the 29.6kg of plutonium was recorded as a loss in an annual audit and was probably the result of complex chemical measurements.

"This is material that is unaccounted for, and there is always a discrepancy between the physical inventory and the book inventory. There is no suggestion that any material has left the site.

"When you have got a complicated chemical procedure, quite often material remains in the plant. We have published these figures since the 70s. Some years there is an apparent gain, some years there is an apparent loss."

A spokesman for the UK Atomic Energy Authority said: "The MUF [material unaccounted for] figures for 2003/04 were all within international standards of expected measurement accuracy for closing a nuclear material balance at the type of facility concerned. "There is no evidence to suggest that any of the apparent losses reported were real losses of nuclear material."
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 18, 2005
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