Enough weapons-grade plutonium to make more than 15,000 nuclear bombs will be vulnerable to hijack by terrorists and rogue states as the result of a disarmament initiative.
An unprecedented shipment of 300lb of the material from the United States was last night heading towards the French port of Cherbourg on two British ships. The shipment is the first instalment of 68 tons of plutonium from US and Russian weapons stockpiles to be put on to the world's roads and seas at a time when terrorists are actively seeking the material.
The move severely undermines the war on terror and casts further doubt on the rationale advanced for the Iraq war by Tony Blair at last week's Labour conference - keeping weapons of mass destruction out of terrorist hands.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly insisted that al-Qa'ida and other terrorist groups will make nuclear bombs and explode them in Western cities if they can get hold of the material for them.
Last night, the Greenpeace boat Esperanza was stalking the shipment from the US nuclear weapons establishment at Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Described as "the biggest ever shipment of weapons-grade plutonium" by the independent nuclear consultant John Large, it is being carried on the Pacific Teal and Pacific Pintail, owned by a company whose largest shareholder is British Nuclear Fuels.
BNFL refuses to disclose details of the security arrangements, but the two ships are believed to have crossed the Atlantic each armed only with a 30mm machine gun and guarded by 13 special atomic energy policemen. There were reports last night a French warship came out to escort them as they approached Cherbourg. The US governmentsaid it escorted them to the limit of its territorial waters with "a combination of Coast Guard cutters, boats, aircraft and other local law enforcement and naval assets". After the plutonium has landed, it will be taken 500 miles by road to Cadarache in Provence, to be made into nuclear fuel.
A series of studies by Mr Large, presented to the US authorities, have demonstrated gaping holes in the security arrangements. Early next year, the fuel - only slightly less vulnerable to hijack - will be transported back across the Atlantic to the Catawaba nuclear power plant in Charlotte, South Carolina.
US officials say the transatlantic trip is a "one-off", because there are plans to make the fuel in a new plant at home. But nuclear experts point out that - though this precise journey is unlikely to be repeated - it will just be the start. In September 2000, the US and Russia each agreed to eliminate 34 ton of weapons-grade plutonium and turn it into nuclear fuel. At least two tons will be taken from stockpiles each year, transported to fuel fabrication plants, turned into fuel and transported again to reactors.
Security experts are particularly worried about Russia, where plutonium is to be taken on journeys of up to 1,200 miles in its raw form, and up to 4,300 miles as fuel.
Last night, Dr Frank Barnaby, a former Aldermaston nuclear weapons specialist who became director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, called the plans "an invitation to terrorists to go nuclear".
He says a group could easily make an atomic bomb from just four-and a-half pounds of the plutonium.
© 2004 The Independent Ltd.