back to article UK presses car ferry to ship powdered plutonium

The UK is shipping plutonium dioxide from Sellafield, Cumbria, to France this week using a converted roll-on, roll-off ferry . The powder will be driven in French lorries from Sellafield to a local dock and then aboard the ship. The vessel will carry security staff from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. The cruise is being …


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  1. Paul Hurst

    Shh! Top Secret!

    "The exact date is being kept secret on security grounds, but is expected in the next few days"

    Well that's clearly foiled all possible terrorist attacks....unless they've booked a hotel....

  2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Why not use the channel tunnel?

    I'd have thought it was obviously safer, by some considerable margin. Perhaps someone reading this can enlighten me.

  3. StopthePropaganda

    and thank you to the Media

    for pressing for "Open Government" and then using that openness not to expose corruption, but to reveal state secrets and make things easier for terrorists and other ne-er do wells.

    Toh-may-toh, toh-mah-toh. But no matter how you say it, "traitor" sounds the same.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    I'm not worried

    What could go worng? Nothing, really. If they handle the plutonium with the same care like they do with our data...


  5. Matt Hamilton

    Channel Tunnel @Ken

    Just make sure you have Steven Segal on board!


  6. Ash

    @Ken Hagan

    They can't use the tunnel: France are sending illegal immigrants down it on foot, and we can't risk irradiating future benefit whores.... err... Tax paying, contributing members of society!

    Don't worry, though. Dish out Biometric ID cards to the staff on the ferry and they'll be immune to terr'rists anyway.

  7. Perpetual Cyclist


    I think this answers your question...

  8. Anonymous Coward

    I hope...

    they remember to shut the doors...

    /Mines the orange life jacket.

  9. James Bassett

    Re: Why not use the channel tunnel?

    What? And have it passing close by London and Parliament and millions of voters? Are you crazy? Why in gods name would the government sanction that?

    No, far better to send it past The Isle of Man, Wales and the Scilly Isles where there is no one of importance to complain about it and any accident would have negligeble impact on the South East.

  10. Tony Humphreys

    am I missing something

    So CORE are protesting that were shipping our 'glow in the dark' to another country - IE It is leaving Cumbria.

    If they dont want that stuff there, then the answer is to send it elsewhere.

    WTF is their problem! Do they think they will miss it.

  11. Sean Donnellan

    Why not the Chunnel?

    Well that would mean lots of nasty plutonium filled lorries driving close to London and through The Home Counties. Can't have that, can we, might affect house prices.........

  12. Andy Kay
    Thumb Down

    Good weather for it

    hmm - high sea winds this week - really good choice! No risk whatsoever, as we never have ships running aground..

    isnt there still that ship on some sand bank in Blackpool?

  13. Paul Brandon

    Cavalier my arse!?

    This stuff is heavily guarded even more so than John Prescott's lunch box! seeing a nuke train role through Stafford station a couple of years ago, bristling with machine gun carrying guards was slightly unnerving to say the least. They would easily best the level of general (in)competence shown be today's would be terrorists. Trying the terrorist angle on this is just plain bollox.

    However problem really being looked at here is if the (possibly inadequate) ship goes down - would be a nasty surprise for the would be salvage hunter!

  14. Paul


    That reminds me of a Channel 4 story on the flooding in Walham (referring to GCHQ): "last night the flood waters came within two inches of shutting the place down altogether". Nice one.

    The media: a herald for idiots.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Terrorist threat...

    Looking back at the london bombing and other not so successful ones (the flamin' landrover) I don't think there really is much risk from UK islamic terrorists, which lets be honest are the only ones pissed off enough to try something against this shipment not just UK ones though.

    The only possible thing they might be capable of pulling off is hijacking the lorries on the way to the ferry and possibly crashing it in the centre of large city but unless there is some insane gale blowing to spread it about it aint going to harm many people. Oh wait there is a storm warning, but even then the risk is negiligible considering the risks of playing with the stuff in the first place.

    And once its on the high seas its mother nature we would need to be worried about not terrorists as the last time i check their naval forces are next to non existent. Though they could have bought an old Kilo class sub of the Russians or something similar.

  16. Anonymous Coward


    If I wanted to ship plutonium, I'd probably leak some information about how I was going to do it, and then send it by some completely different means, a week beforehand. Any bets that this ship contains nothing more than a small note saying "April Fool" ?

  17. Mr Chris

    It hasn't been "pressed into service"

    That makes it sound as if it was a hurried lash-up to meet an unexpected requirement.

    It's a specially converted ship that's been used since 2001 for trasnporting nuclear material, along with several other ships.

    Shipments of nuclear material is a regular thing, as they're taking back reprocessed fuel to customers in europe and japan and picking up spent fuel to take back and reprocess. Under armed escort, mind.

    This really isn't news, Reg.

  18. Mr Chris

    And another thing

    The ships themselves are armed, ffs.

  19. Philip Webb

    High Sea winds not a problem?

    Just a thought but assuming that the vessel is capable of coping with these kinds of conditions it would actually make it harder for terrorists to try and attack in poor weather anyway.

    Mine's the Sou'wester with the the submarine keys in it....

  20. cor
    Black Helicopters

    What's the fuss?

    Sellafield/Windscale/Whatever-the-spindoctors-rename-it-to has been disposing of radioactive waste via the sea for decades now. However due to spoilsport eco-types, they now package it and put it on ships.

    Funny enough (not laughing) I drove past a convoy of 9 trucks carrying UN 2909-161 packages last week on my way to work. They were 6-8 m long 1.5 - 2 m diameter white caskets, mounted atop 'sketeton' trailers normally used for container transport. Being round, they were wedged between the parallel chassis beams. Nice thick blue nylon rachet-straps held them in place.

    I felt really assured, by the presence of a traffic jam and the absence of any (visible) police. In fairness, I have no idea how dangerous this stuff is, but if you need to spread the load over nine 40-tonners, then quantity may suffice in the absence of quality.

    I took an alternative route as soon as I could. Not paranoid, just not curious enough to hang around...

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not so worried about the plutonium

    It's been rendered into the oxide which is pretty much insoluble, but I can't see why BNFL aren't using one of their two double-hulled, heavily armed ships designed specifically for transporting fuel. This smacks of a false economy which is just crying out for someone to attack - if not our fundamentalist friends, then the lentil-wearers at Greenpeace.

    Plutonium isn't, despite Ralph Nader's assertions, the most toxic substance on the planet - but it is incredibly dangerous stuff. If it fell into the wrong hands, it *COULD* be used to make a bomb - there is no difference between reactor-grade and bomb-grade plutonium when it comes to going bang - one just goes bang more consistently than the other. The only way to persuade the public that nuclear power is safe and well managed is for every part of the fuel cycle to be conducted with the highest levels of security. This is clearly not the case here.

    Of course, the reason we're shipping plutonium at all is because BNFL's Mox plant at Sellafield has just been declared unsalvageably crap and will never produce the fuel it is contracted to supply to energy generators. So we're sending recovered plutonium to the French Cogema plant where it will be made into usable fuel elements.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    The problem ain't terros

    "to reveal state secrets and make things easier for terrorists and other ne-er do wells."

    Woah the usual retarted poster materializing out of the Internets. Business as usual.

    Attacking a roro ferry in the Atlantic is still a bit beyond Zawahiri's means methinks. The problem is the ferry having engine failure then running aground/capsizing/doing the dance of death while losing its finely powdered plutonium oxide cargo. Anyone remember the problems caused by a stranded Uranium Hexafluoride cargo in the late 80s?

    How would you like your shellfish today?

  23. teacake

    Incomplete Quote

    'Core spokesman Martin Forwood said: "The shipment from Sellafield will contain enough plutonium to make a large number of such devices "'

    Such devices as what? Luminous watches?

  24. Chris Miller

    Why would I want to build my own bomb?

    When I can buy a second-hand one much more cheaply and quickly??

  25. Anonymous Coward

    Nuclear freight! A Catastophy waiting to happen!

    I was wondering why the British merchant navy has the value of a cheap flag and no t even charterers are willing to flag under it, but when I see what they are allowing, it doesn't really surprise me!

    My brother is Captain at sea, and is one of the few who are actually trained to captain ships, that hold nuclear freight for international transport.

    Through him I know a few things about this sort of stuff!

    What these idiots are about to do, is absolutely ridiculous!

    I am not anti nuclear power plants, because -let's face it- we need them! At the same time though have to make sure that all possible precautions are being taken when radioactive material is being handled.

    what the government is doing, is sidestepping many of the rules which were designed to ensure public safety! how on earth can they be so irresponsible!?!?

    who ever sanctioned this, should be removed from his/her post immediately!

    But who are we anyway? Hasn't the government ind recent years demonstrated, that they are completely above the law, ignoring the peoples wishes etc.

    It is disgusting, that people like this are actual leaders of this country!

    They should be made to accompany the ship.

  26. Simon Preston

    "The exact date is being kept secret on security grounds"

    Ted Striker: My orders came through. My squadron ships out tomorrow. We're bombing the storage depots at Daiquiri at 1800 hours. We're coming in from the north, below their radar.

    Elaine Dickinson: When will you be back?

    Ted Striker: I can't tell you that. It's classified.

  27. Richard Devenport

    Re: Walham

    To be fair, the Walham switching station is owned by National Grid, and if it had gone down due to flooding taking out the HV or LV equipment, it wouldn't be just GCHQ going off the air - it'd take out large parts of Gloucestershire. It's NGET (a private company), not the government, that are responsible for keeping the UK electricity transmission system running.

    In addition, that station is on a key link between South Wales and the rest of the UK, and between the North and London. The worst case scenario at the time was losing South Wales entirely (Aberthaw was on outage to fit equipment to comply with an EU Directive), and putting London at risk of brownouts.

  28. Anonymous John

    By the time it gets through the stack on the M20,

    it's half life will have expired.

  29. Jeremy

    Who cares...

    Nuke containers rumble past the back of my house every few days by rail on the way to/from Sellafield. It's no biggie.

    I'm just off to count my extra fingers and toes...

  30. heystoopid
    Black Helicopters


    Hmmm , let me see given the current poor state of the under maintained Royal Navy main and auxiliary fleet units , the escort vessel would probably end up being a Thames River Police launch and old diesel electric submarine from Portsmouth , the same model that keeps sinking fishing boats when returning from short patrols due to chronic fuel shortages !

  31. Morely Dotes
    IT Angle

    Be serious

    Do you really believe there's powdered plutonium in this shipment?

    What there is, is bait for the usual lot of incompetent terrorists.

    The real stuff was shipped two weeks ago in a string of military cargo craft.

  32. Herby

    But I wanted...

    ...a Bud Lite!

    It has already been transported, this is probably just a drill, or some such. Get out the Geiger counters and see if anything "glows".

  33. Anonymous Coward

    "taking back reprocessed fuel to customers"

    Who's shipping nukular material around the world these days?

    Japan isn't interested in Sellafield/Windscale services any more, surely? They're building their own plant at Rokkasho, having caught BNFL falsifying the safety documentation back in 1999, which unusually for the UK actually led to the resignation of the man at the top (

    Sellafield's Mox plant was supposed to do over a hundred tonnes a year. The best it's done in any year since it opened (in 2002) is less than three tonnes. The French contract is having to be fulfilled using material bought in from elsewhere, not stuff we've made on our own premises.

    Almost £500M has been spent on the Mox plant. For what?

    Hasn't Sellafield's Thorp plant also been "offline" (aka broken) for the last three years or so too, following the accidental loss of twenty or so tonnes of uranium and plutonium solution? This plant cost over £2Billion, and again, for what?

    Nuclear industry = big money = BIG LIE.

  34. lglethal Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Come on folks...

    If Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear can cross the channel in a Toybota then i think a fully kitted out, modified EX-car ferry re-engineered to carry nuclear fuel should be ok.

    I'm interested what people's objections to this really are. Is it just you would prefer them to wait a bit until these high winds die down? Do you not want them to ship it at all? Do you want a fully armed military escort? What part of the process are you complaining about?

  35. Anonymous Coward

    Captain Queeg

    I swears it'll be safe me hearties, I swear it on me three hearts with me six fingered hand!

  36. Richard Neill

    Proportionality, sense of?

    Probably worth stating that nuclear material isn't really all that dangerous. This isn't to say we should treat it carelessly, but that we shouldn't panic. For example, a tanker full of petrol is rather more hazardous on the road.

    What are the actual risks:?

    - Radioactivity

    The stuff is pretty well packaged, but unless it gets into the air, you'd be safe as long as you stay 50m away. (Similar to a burning oil tanker, I should think!)

    - Terrorists

    This is really a pretty moot point. Terrorists don't need nuclear material to make a dirty bomb - they are doing just fine with fertiliser. If they did want to make a "dirty bomb", much easier to get their supplies from a renegade russian state. And nobody is going to make a "nuclear" bomb out of this stuff - it is simply too hard to do if you haven't got military-scale resources. Also, a terrorist who hijacks a plutonium source has either a huge logistical issue (transporting many tonnes of shielding), or will try to take the source out of its shield, and be killed by it.

    - Toxicity

    If plutonium dust gets into the air, then we do have a fairly nasty hazard. This is pretty unlikely to happen, given the precautions. Even so, it would still only rate as a bad industrial accident, rather than a monumental catastrophe.

    In practice, transporting nuclear fuel gets rather more care and attention (given the chance of failure, and the hazard of a potential failure) than many other daily activities.

  37. Jerry

    @ By Mike Richards

    Actually there is a big difference between bomb grade and non-bomb grade plutonium. It all comes down to isotopic balance.

    The problem is the 'good' plutonium 239 used for making 'safe' bombs is contaminated with the 'bad' Pu240 which makes it go off with a fizzle at the most awkward moments.

    To get an even marginally viable bomb you need better that 93% Pu239. Most reactor grade plutonium is under 80% Pu239.

    So, if stolen, reactor grade plutonium could conceivably be used to make a small petard that contaminated a few acres. But a serious kiloton range explosion would be very unlikely

  38. Daniel Wilkie

    @ Heystoopid

    No diesel electric subs down here anymore (not in service anyway) - they closed the submarine base ages ago. Indeed the Royal Navy doesn't operate and diesel-electrics anymore, its a fully nuclear fleet.

    Oh wait, there is the Alliance up on stilts round the corner from my office I suppose... hang on, where's it gone? :O

  39. Karl Lattimer

    What such devices?

    "The shipment from Sellafield will contain enough plutonium to make a large number of such devices"

    Is that a partial quote? I don't know what such devices they're referring to. I'm also not sure that Plutonium dioxide can be used to build an atom bomb (if that's the device in question), AFAIK you need fairly pure metals, and finding something to take the oxygen from plutonium would probably be more difficult that obtaining fissible uranium or plutonium.

    I thought the whole point of MOX fuels was that they were difficult to turn into weapons, easy to recycle, easy path to decommission fissible plutonium or uranium and fairly safe when leaked into the environment.

  40. Gwyn Kemp-Philp

    Risks and rewards.

    What are we complaining about?

    Well, for starters, no-one thinks the current government is capable of doing anything without losing at least half of it - and its budget. I bet it isn't even encrypted!

    Secondly, stretched resources and PC commitments ensure that all escorts are authorised to shout sternly at any would-be pirates and have been known to exceed their authority and shake their fists in the heat of the moment on occasions.

    Thirdly, when the stolen shipment is discovered in Solihull, the Courts will rule that we have no evidence that the stuff is actually stolen and it should be returned to the innocent but persecuted (insert fave group here) and let them be left in peace to pursue their hobbies.

    I think our future lies in Nuclear power - but - Nuclear + UK + Big bungs = Worry.

  41. Slaine

    Financial Viability

    In order to maintain some semblence of financial viability, the government is now required to downgrade the security, travel plans and transportational methodology for unclear waste. What a relief it is to know that the safety of the entire globe is entrusted to the same people who brought us "unencrypted CDRoms full of personal data" and lost them.

  42. Anonymous Coward


    Don't tell the french farmers, they think it's welsh lamb

  43. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    *INF 2 - the second of three possible classifications.*

    The other two being INF1 and INF3 one vaguely supposes.

    Insane Nuclear Firebombs? Or what?

  44. heystoopid


    @daniel surely you jest , however RN do have on current special lease one Spanish and one German D/E submarine they allowed to borrow them from time to time (nuke's are very noisy beasties and can be heard coming from a hundred miles away and one suspects they would love to get their hands on the newest German fuel power cell class as these babies are so sneaky and so quiet they can sail up behind any current nuke and the crew on the other boat would never be the wiser for weeks at a time) !

  45. Ralph Beales

    Wrong ship?

    @ Mr. Chris

    I thought it was an INF2 ship being used? Your link is for an INF3

    suggests it's the Atlantic Osprey being used, in which case, I'm sure you can check the local paper for shipping movements or the Lloyds List and it will tell you when it docks and when it will embark.

    This really is a 'non-story' though. Don't go on your hols to Cornwall, you really will be irradiated. I suspect most of those having a grumble also complain about electricity pylons/mobile phone masts and wear copper bangles.

  46. Curtis W. Rendon

    NASA can use a couple of kilos

    They are unable to obtain any from US DOE to supply the radioisotope 'batteries' for deep space missions, so will happily take some off your hands.

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