Thursday, November 08, 2001

By Alan Irving

Even more intensive security measures for Sellafield could include a missile firing base to combat the possibility of an air attack by terrorists on the nuclear site.

Britain's security services are looking at what extra measures may be needed to protect the country's nuclear installations. Sellafield, with its huge plutonium stockpile and its storage of high-level liquid waste in tanks, is seen to be most vulnerable.

The French government has already installed surface-to-air missiles around its equivalent of Sellafield - the Cap La Hague reprocessing plant near the Channel port of Cherbourg - and fears of an aerial attack on Sellafield have heightened since two Tornado fighters flew to the site 12 days ago in response to an alert. It was a false alarm.

Yesterday the Ministry of Defence confirmed that a new security review was under way. Asked whether it could result in similar missile protection for Sellafield, a spokesman said: "Everything is possible. Things are in the melting pot as the review is some way from being completed."

Community leaders in Copeland have been told that the threat of terrorists attacking Sellafield from the sea has been taken account of.

Now the British government is understood to be considering whether to use the Territorial Army - a 40,000 strong force of part-time soldiers - to reinforce security at nuclear and chemical plants - as well as surface-to-air missiles which could shoot down a terrorist aircraft before it got within striking range of Sellafield.

Councillors with leading roles in the Sellafield Local Liaison Committee - the site's independent health and safety watchdog - say that serious consideration should be given to missile protection.

"What the French have done might scare people living around here but having this level of security would send a clear message to terrorists that there is no way into Sellafield," said David Moore, the SLLC's chairman.

Mr Moore, who lives at Seascale, went on: "I have been briefed with others on what security BNFL are responsible for. I am satisfied with the arrangements but I am not privy to what the government are doing."

After the false alarm scare, David Moore said he expected to see Sellafield's air exclusion zone widened to give earlier warning of a possible attack.

At the present exclusion of two miles it would take 14 seconds for an aircraft to enter and hit the site whereas it took more than 10 minutes for the Tornados to reach Sellafield.

John Henney, emergency planning sub committee for the SLLC, said: "Without doubt, surface-to-missile protection is worth considering. The only concern I have is that missiles should be put as far away from the site as possible in the event of a place having to be shot down. It seems ridiculous to talk like this but this is the reality and we have to prepare for it."

At a Sellafield security briefing giving to Copeland community leaders including church representatives, Mr Henney asked about the possibility of a terrorist attack by sea. "We were told they were paying attention to this and it would be covered."

"General security of the site is being beefed up and things are being looked at in a new light," he added.

Ironically, Sellafield this week dropped its security status from Amber to Black Special, next to the lowest of the four categories, on the Home Secretary's advice.

"It doesn't mean that things are being taken lightly, anything but," said Mr Henney. "It is to keep people on their toes, the status can be switched up and down at a moment's notice."

Under Black Special, all BNFL workers are having their site passes checked on entering the site and all contractors vehicles are being searched.

Copeland MP Jack Cunningham said: "I think the French reaction is over the top but if ministers, given the information they have, think such a deployment is necessary here then they should do it."

The MP said he worried about "outrageous anti-nuclear scaremongering." There was no evidence, he said, that Sellafield was on a terrorist hit list or that nuclear plants were under any more or less threat than chemical installations and oil refineries.