17 April 2008
Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has upheld a decision by the UK Atomic Energy Authority to withhold seven files on the storage and safety of “fissile material” and “special nuclear material” at the Caithness site.
Tonnes of plutonium and highly enriched uranium are thought to be housed at Dounreay, which used to be the UK centre for developing the fast breeder reactor. The site is now being decommissioned.
In response to my request for information, the UKAEA argued that publishing details of the storage facilities, their hazards and security systems could enable terrorists to gain access to nuclear materials.
That would give them the power to threaten UK national security in several ways, the UKAEA said. Materials could be dispersed or burnt at Dounreay “with risks to personnel on and in the vicinity of the site”.
Nuclear materials could also be stolen and used as a “dirty bomb”, according to the UKAEA. “This could contribute to nuclear proliferation if material with weapons grade potential were obtained by third parties,” it argued.
There was also the risk of “holding the material for ransom e.g. by threatening to create a dirty bomb or to hand it over to an unfriendly power.” Terrorists, the UKAEA said, could “have the leverage to undermine foreign policy and affect the economic well-being of the country.”
In his ruling, issued this month, Thomas accepted the UKAEA’s arguments. “Disclosure could enable persons to gain access to materials which if used in any of the ways described by the UKAEA would have a far reaching impact on the national security of the UK,” he said.
The case has taken more than two years to resolve. I first requested the files from the UKAEA on 1 March 2006, then referred the matter to Thomas on 21 April 2006. He didn’t begin his investigation until 26 June 2007, and didn’t issue a decision until 9 April 2008.
The full decision by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, is available to download here (80kb pdf).