Secret plans to combat the threat of terrorists exploding a nuclear bomb have been in place for 30 years – despite official assurances that it could never happen.
While insisting that nuclear terrorism was “unthinkable”, successive governments have run a series of high-level emergency exercises. But until now the programme has remained secret.
Nuclear experts regard the revelation as “genuinely frightening” as it suggests nuclear security had not been as tight as was thought at the time, and the threat of a terrorist attack is even greater today.
The confidential programme was known as the Criminal Improvised Nuclear Device Emergency Response (Cinder). It involved the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the police and scientists from the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire.
“Cinder was established in the late 1970s to provide the UK government’s response to the possible threat of nuclear terrorism,” disclosed Nigel Maggs from the MoD’s Nuclear Weapons Integrated Project Team.
“Cinder became defunct in the 1990s when the UK capability in this area gradually transformed into one more appropriate to the chemical, biological, radiobiological and nuclear threat we now face.”
However, the MoD refused to reveal operational details of Cinder. “Knowledge of counter improvised nuclear device contingency planning must be kept on a need-to-know basis if hoaxes are to be avoided,” said one official.
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear weapons expert who used to work at Aldermaston, said governments had always insisted terrorists didn’t pose a nuclear threat. “The fact that they thought it could happen is genuinely frightening,” he said.
"It must mean that the nuclear arsenals were less well guarded than we were led to believe. This is the first indication that the government thought that there was a significant risk that a British nuclear weapon could be stolen and detonated."
Barnaby, now a nuclear consultant to the Oxford Research Group, argued that the risk of a terrorist nuclear bomb was greater today. Over 100 tonnes of plutonium - enough for at least 20,000 nuclear bombs - have been created by nuclear reactors and separated at Sellafield in Cumbria.
A new nuclear power programme would see more plutonium being made and moved around. “It is almost inevitable that a terrorist will get hold of some and make a bomb,” he claimed.
In response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the MoD has released 20 pages of memos about Cinder, dated from 1989 to 1992. They reveal two problems encountered during the programme.
One was an article about an exercise involving hostage-taking, booby traps, a bomb and a farm house near Aldermaston in the Mail on Sunday on 8 January 1989. The MoD was furious about the "unauthorised disclosure of sensitive official information", according to one memo.
Officials were concerned that the article "could encourage mischievous threats not previously envisaged". Suspecting that the police had leaked information to the journalist, Chester Stern, they urged the Home Office to conduct an inquiry, the outcome of which is not known.
The memos also reveal concerns over the life insurance of civilians involved in Cinder. Because they could not disclose the true nature of their jobs, insurance companies might refuse to pay compensation in the event of injury or death.
The solution was for the government to indemnify those involved. "A certificate, (the wording of which was agreed with HM Treasury) giving cover without financial limit is issued to team members," said a 1989 memo.