Originally created 04/23/98

Britain defends acceptance of nuclear material



LONDON -- Under attack from environmentalists and opposition politicians, the British government on Wednesday defended its decision to accept uranium and spent nuclear fuel from the former Soviet Georgia.

In an operation designed to keep the material out of the hands of extremists, the United States has begun removing it from the former Soviet republic and sending it to Britain to be reprocessed for civilian use.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook defended Britain's participation today, telling BBC radio the material was not highly radioactive, but was highly explosive and of weapons grade.

Georgia, which has been plagued by unrest and borders unstable Caucasus regions, including the Russian rebel republic of Chechnya, could not safely store the material, he said, noting the country's proximity to the Middle East.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said there was concern the material would fall into "the wrong hands."

"We are taking the appropriate steps to ensure the safety of this material," she said.

Cook stressed today that most of the material would be coverted into medical isotopes for the treatment of cancer patients.

"We understand that this is the last consignment from countries of the former Soviet Union and this is the end of the story," he said.

Cook also noted that the United States has accepted about 1,320 pounds of nuclear material from the former Soviet Union.

"We are accepting in this case about five kilograms" -- the equivalent of 11 pounds," he said.

"If we're looking at the risk, if this material was to be used in a nuclear weapon in the Middle East, Britain and Europe would get far more than 1 percent of the radioactive fallout," he said. So, "taking 1 percent (of the material) isn't a bad bargain from our point of view."

The government has rejected accusations that it made a secret deal with the United States to take the material to Scotland's Dounreay nuclear processing plant. But a government spokesman has acknowledged that, for security reasons, Britain had not intended to publicize its decision to accept the nuclear material.

News of the arrangement appeared Tuesday in The New York Times, which said U.S. Air Force planes would fly the nuclear material from Georgia to Britain.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had been preparing a written statement to Parliament, to be delivered once the material arrived in Britain, Blair's spokesman said today, speaking on condition of anonymity.

There were obvious security reasons why the timing and the route of such transfers are never announced, the spokesman said.

Contrary to newspaper reports, he said the plan had been cleared by the prime minister "some time" before he went the United States in February.

The material from Georgia would produce a minimal amount of intermediate-level waste at a site that already houses thousands of times more similar material, he said.

Opposition Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party politicians criticized the secrecy and demanded an explanation.

Friends of the Earth said it wanted a pledge from Blair "that Britain will not be the final repository for Georgian nuclear waste or nuclear waste from any other country."

Dr. Brian East of the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Center told BBC radio the unused uranium was "not particularly" radioactive.

"You can almost certainly send it through the post if you wanted to," he said. "If this kind of material, which has the potential for being made into nuclear warheads, got into unscrupulous hands, it could be handled very easily, and that's the concern."

Frances Taylor of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the industry's independent regulator, said Dounreay could store the material safely, but that Britain might not ultimately be able to deal with all the material and that reprocessing plans were not complete.

"Dounreay can store it safely for the time being. Once it's on site, we will discuss with them in detail what they are going to do with it," she said.