Two British ships will slip into the Japanese port of Takahama this week to pick up a cargo of plutonium large enough to make 50 nuclear bombs.
The Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal, carrying 225kg of weapons-useable plutonium, will leave Japan bound for Cumbria. Their voyage will face flotillas of furious protesters and risk not only a major diplomatic incident but the threat of terrorism. Former Ministry of Defense senior staff, ex-Government nuclear physicists and experts on international terrorism not only warn that the trip is absurd in the wake of 11 September, but also claim security is inadequate.
They believe the vessel's cargo is so prized by terrorists and rogue states they will in effect become a 'floating target' during their 18,000-mile journey to the port of Barrow-in-Furness. Experts believe al-Qaeda presents the biggest threat to the UK shipment, warning of scenarios where the vessel is not only seized, but attacked by missile or rammed by boat or aircraft.
The ships left Britain five weeks ago under a shroud of secrecy but it has proved impossible to keep their route secret. Today the BNFL boats will enter the NorthWest Pacific Basin, 1,500 miles from their destination. Environmentalists are monitoring their every move. Terrorists may be watching too.
The voyage is acutely embarrassing for Britain. The nuclear fuel in question was shipped to Japan three years ago, but after staff at Government-owned BNFL admitted faking the material's safety records Britain was ordered to take back the contentious cargo. Refusal to bring back the shipment would, according to analysts, sabotage around £4 billion of investment between BNFL and Japan as well as jeopardizing the future of the controversial new £472m Mox (mixed oxide) plant at Sellafield.
Environmentalists blame the Government's 'flawed' nuclear policies for its decision to press ahead with the risky global trade in reprocessed plutonium and uranium oxide, known as Mox fuel.
Protesters plan a flotilla of more than 100 boats to intercept the nuclear convoy when it moves up the Irish Sea in August - although they will not blockade the ships' path. 'This plutonium is dangerous enough as it is - we don't want to do anything to make it more of a risk,' said Andrew Clemence of Pembrokeshire Anti-Nuclear Alliance, which is organizing the British side of the protests.
He believes the potential for disaster in the Irish Sea, a narrow stretch of water notorious for its sudden storms, strong and unpredictable currents and rocky coasts, remains a real prospect. 'If one of those boats breaks down or starts to sink it could pollute these waters for years to come,' he said.
The Irish government is considering a legal attempt to try to stop the shipment coming into the Irish Sea. Rowan Hand, an amateur sailor from Co Louth, is co-ordinating the Irish protests. 'Our fears are not being taken seriously. This sort of convoy is total madness,' he said.
Yet it is the threat of terrorism that raises most alarm. 'Any transportation of that sort of material would need to be safeguarded in a very thorough way,' said Professor Paul Wilkinson, terrorism expert at St Andrews University. 'Some terrorist organizations would love to get hold of it. Al-Qaeda would be really interested in going the whole hog when it comes to nuclear weapons.'
Experts believe there are al-Qaeda cells in at least 50 countries, making it almost impossible for the boat to navigate halfway across the world without coming close to some. William Hopkinson, former Assistant Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defense, also believes the shipment is coveted by Saddam Hussein. Dr Frank Barnaby, former nuclear physicist with the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, warned that anyone who seized the cargo could easily convert it into nuclear devices within weeks. 'Any significant terrorist groups would be able to do this or have sympathizers that could,' he said.
A confidential report by Barnaby to Ministers warns that anyone who obtains Mox fuel would need no more technical knowledge to build an atomic device than that used to make the Lockerbie bomb.
However, BNFL maintains the vessels are among the most foolproof in the world. The vessels, which are specially strengthened, are equipped with three 30mm cannon, now obscured under tarpaulins, making them the first commercial ships since World War II to be armed. Armed guards are on board. Even if the boats are captured, BNFL believes terrorists would face enormous difficulties cracking open the vessel's reinforced hatch covers. However a US government study has concluded armed terrorists could get at a nuclear cargo by using explosives to blow open the transport casks.
Another scenario involves the material being used as a bargaining chip by its new owners, in effect converting the Mox fuel into a powerful hostage against world governments. A direct attack with missiles, captured aircraft or boats used as battering rams is a threat taken seriously by both US and UK intelligence.
Both vessels are relatively slow - top speed is in the region of 15 knots - leaving them unable to outpace faster more modern vessels and vulnerable to attack from 'small, fast craft armed with ship-to-ship missiles', according to a US defense report. Furthermore, the respected Jane's Foreign Report concluded that security provided by the Pintail and Teal 'is totally inadequate for transporting half a ton of plutonium halfway around the world'.
The routes being considered for the Mox shipment are among the most accident-prone in the world. Before 11 September there was concern that security for the shipment was not tight enough. Yet there is no suggestion it has been upgraded since the original transportation in 1999.
The fuel will be transported along one of three possible routes - via the Panama Canal and Caribbean Sea; across the South Pacific, Tasman Sea and Africa's Cape of Good Hope; or via South America - all of which are fraught with difficulties and opposed by nations en route.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002