Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Atomic conflagration: Fire disaster for Kensington could be so much worse, borough admitted 16 years ago

Fire disaster for Kensington could be so much worse, borough admitted 16 years ago


In a meeting room at City Hall, the headquarters of London government, on 26 March 2001, a committee of London Assembly members heard explosive evidence on public safety from Guy Denington, a senior council official responsible for environmental safety at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC)


He told the committee members, chaired by the Green Party’s Darren Johnson that given the amount of people who resided and worked in the centre of London, alternative rail routes to the west London Line that passes through west Kensington should be found through areas of much lower density population for the transportation of radioactive waste and that rail freight should routed around (rather than through) London wherever possible, which would allow greater use from relevant rail lines for passenger services.


Some 200 transport of radioactive materials – mainly irradiated nuclear fuels rods from the nuclear plants at Sizewell in Suffolk, Bradwell in Essex,  and Dungeness in Kent-  then took place through London each year.


It was suggested by Mr Denington that a thorough examination of the issues of risks and routes associated with the transport of nuclear waste needed to be undertaken. 


He was backed by David Norton, who lead the London borough of Barnet’s pollution control team, including emergency planning, who advised that there was “a perceived need for the nuclear waste trains to pass through areas of lower population density as reasoned argument suggested that if smaller numbers of people were being potentially exposed to the risk of exposure to radioactive material the risk was smaller than if a large number of people were potentially being exposed.”


LB Barnet had, he said, sought alternative routes (through dialogue with relevant bodies arising from the Cricklewood Inquiry in the late 1990s) although information about routes had not been particularly forthcoming and conclusive answers about potential alternative routes had not been received.  He strongly argued that  routes used in the transportation of radioactive waste should avoid bridges and tunnels wherever possible, particularly as it was understood that one of the types of flasks used in the transportation, if upside down and heated for approximately 2 hours, could allow venting of radioactive material through its safety valve.  Such a scenario was not inconceivable and that, if this were to occur in a tunnel, the problems for the emergency services associated with trying to reach a flask in this situation and rectifying the situation would be very difficult


Mr Denington said that while  the possibility of a major rail accident involving flasks containing radioactive material was very small for that Borough – the Borough’s emergency planning officer had advised that there was a higher probability of chemical spillages (e.g. a gas spillage) which would potentially be much more difficult to contain than a very low-level spillage from a nuclear waste transport flask – “In terms of public perception, the RBKC emergency planning team had noted that, in the event of an incident involving the transport of radioactive waste, it may be that the public response would be the most serious aspect of the incident if information was not handled and presented carefully.”


Fast forward to June 2017, and it has been apparent for all to see how inadequately prepared the RBKC’s emergency incident plan has been to deal with the major catastrophic fire at the Grenfell Tower social housing project. How much it would have been had the fire been spewing out radioactive smoke across North Kensington, requiring the urgent mass evacuation of tens  of thousands of residents.


David Norton had stressed to the London Assembly committee looking into the hazards of  nuclear materials transports through London, that it was possible that the transported flasks represented a target for terrorist action.  Under questioning, Guy Denington  said the RBKC emergency planning officer had suggested that terrorists may well look for easier and more controllable methods of creating major disruption and damage, although he  acknowledged that this was essentially speculation  as there had been no formal study of this issue by RBKC. He supported a test run of the Government’s emergency plan called RADSAFE, for incidents involving radioactivity.


He also advised the committee that RBKC was in favour of a detailed risk analysis being undertaken before it could reasonably comment on the adequacy of the liability arrangements.  (


The final report of the committee’s investigations was published on 15 October 2001, ( barely a month after the world biggest ever terrorist attack, that destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing 3000 civilians

The report made a number of considered recommendations, including that until alternative routes around London had been established, nuclear trains running through densely populated  urban areas of London should  be  limited to 45mph. This was not only ignored, but the maximum permitted speed was subsequently raised to 60mph.

Even the recommendation of limiting the speeds of nuclear trains to 45mph was ignored and the maximum speed subsequently raised to 60mph.

The Committee warned  an attack on a train carrying spent nuclear fuel through London could leave emergency services struggling to cope, and argued an urgent technical review was needed for the possibility of an attack - terrorist or vandal - on, or derailment of, the train, particularly as no exercise had been conducted involving all of the capital's emergency services. The report also said Railtrack and operators must improve trackside security "as a matter of urgency".

Other recommendations included improving trackside security including relating to access to spent fuel flasks, monitoring radiation levels of trains and trackside, a review by the Emergency Services and Boroughs, "for example the setting up.... of radiation hotlines, mechanisms for ensuring consistency of helpline advice and the training of helpline staff" and the Emergency Services to  review "whether current arrangements can be extended to provide an effective response to any incident more serious than those officially anticipated."  It also said, "Any decision on nuclear reactors in the South-East would have to be made in conjunction with by-pass routes, the possibility of on-site storage facilities and the capacity of the network to carry the required number of shipments safely. 

Committee chairman, Green group leader in the Greater London authority, Darren Johnson, told the Guardian the train transportation of spent fuel should be halted, and he urged an exercise to test the coordinated response from all services, stressing "We don't believe that adequate procedures are yet in place in terms of training exercises to deal with an emergency on one of those trains. Security measures do need to be improved."

(“London vulnerable to attack on nuclear waste train,” Guardian, 15 October 2001;

But Mr Johnson also said: "It has always been maintained by the regulatory authorities and the nuclear industry in this country that nuclear flasks are not a promising target for terrorists. Nevertheless, work carried out in the US before 11 September indicated that it was a credible scenario to assume that a flask could be sabotaged, and could be punctured with an explosive device.

"We didn't get full details from either the nuclear industry or from other bodies about the arrangements in place to deal with a terrorist threat in this country. But what we were concerned to hear was that they didn't consider it a very plausible threat which suggest that there aren't many precautions in place to deal with it."

(“Nuclear waste trains 'at risk from terrorists’,” Independent, 15 October 2001;

Seven years earlier, London-based writer Mary Flanagan had written a controversial article in the same newspaper, highly critical of the hazards being imposed on Londoners from nuclear transports through the city. (“Deadly cargo: Nuclear waste travelling through London poses unacceptable risks,” Independent, 30 August  1994;

She wrote: “Few shoppers in the throbbing Brixton street market realise that a train carrying irradiated waste from Germany and Switzerland trundles past regularly on the bridge overhead, en route to the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria. No authority has seen fit to inform them. Several minutes later, the same train and its toxic cargo will hurtle through Olympia, past the exhibition centre, tower blocks and elegant white houses of Kensington.”

The Political Ecology Research Group, led by Dr Peter Taylor, had already reported that a 10% leak from a ruptured  nuclear flask would render a strip of land widening out from the site of the accident uninhabitable for 125 years.

Virtually all these recommendations were ignored by the then Labour Government, including by current London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who became transport minister rin June 1999.  Carrying out a risk assessment on the lines suggested was voted down by the GLA, but the independent Mayor, Ken Livingstone, subsequently in September 2005 set up his own £17,500 evaluation, and Commissioned technical contractor SERCO to do the work. 

The risk assessment would include, the GLA Business Management and Appointments committee decided, establishing the following key objectives:


• The implications of current nuclear train routes for impacts in the event of an incident, in particular allowing for population and employment densities around key routes and sites; and

• The opportunity, benefits and costs of reducing risk and/or exposure particularly through re-routing transport of nuclear fuel away from London

The need for the study was outlined thus:

“Recent events highlight the terrorist threat that exists within the UK, in particular within London. The rail lines carrying nuclear waste through London could be an attractive target for terrorism. Recognising that trains do also run through other points of Great Britain, the size of London’s population further highlights the vulnerability of London and the need for the study.

A London-specific study of risks of the transport of spent nuclear fuel by rail through London was an explicit recommendation of the London Assembly Nuclear Waste Trains Investigative Committee ‘Scrutiny of the transportation of nuclear waste by train through London’ report in October 2001”.

In June 2007 it was discovered that the GLA had decided not to publish SERCO's final report.

The London-based Nuclear Trains Action Group however got sent a copy of the unpublished report, which revealed that the study only considered "accidents" not "deliberate acts".  Dave Polden of NTAG noted cynically “Since one of the main purposes of the risk assessment recommended by the Investigative Committee had been ‘consideration of the risk from sabotage or terrorist attack’ it is no wonder the GLA decided not to publish the report.” 

Subsequently there has been no known effort to carry such a critical study.


What travels on the trains?

Each transport flask contains about 2 tons of rods, and about 1 million Curies of radioactivity, or 37 thousand million million Bequerels (one Bequerel is equivalent to one click on a geiger counter; the Hiroshima bomb released about 3 million Curies). The outside surface of these flasks emit radiation well above background levels: even the 14-inch thick walls are inadequate shielding against the highly radioactive rods. If the water coolant was lost, the fuel rods would overheat then combust, dispersing a massive dose of radioactivity into the atmosphere. They are a highly dangerous cargo, which the nuclear  industry and Government technically describe as "spent nuclear fuel" (SNF)..

From the railheads near Sizewell and Dungeness power stations the trains carry this nuclear waste through London to Willesden Junction, where they are marshalled into one train which later travels up to Sellafield in Cumbria. Here the rods (along with those from other power stations) are 'reprocessed', initially by stripping the now radioactive cladding and dissolving the contents in nitric acid. Uranium and plutonium are eventually extracted and stored (and currently unused

nuclear waste train

Train spotting

The trains are easily recognized by the large grey or cream 'cabins' covering the flasks, the long flat-bed waggons, and the short trains. Leaving nearby the power stations there are typically no more than three waggons to a train, but marshalled further along the route there might be up to ten. They are now usually pulled by engines labelled DRS (Direct Rail Services) - the picture above shows a flask being shunted. There used to be a guard's van at the rear of the train, but this was stopped to save money. The trains also make the return journey with the empty flasks, but sometimes take slightly different routes.

The trains typically travel once or twice a week, but this depends on several factors: the number of fuel rods in the ponds, the length of time they have been there, and the current state of the relevant reprocessing plant at Sellafield.

The Mark Thomas Comedy Product showed, on a TV programme broadcast on 10 February 1999  how easy it would be for terrorists to intercept a nuclear waste train from Dungeness. There are quiet spots on the line from Dungeness and Sizewell power stations, the trains are unguarded, and they no longer carry a guards van (so the flasks can only be observed from one view.


Regulated to death

The UK regulations covering the safety and security of transport of nuclear materials are based on the recommendations of the IAEA (Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material 2012 IAEA,

The UK nuclear regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation,(ONR) states of its responsibilities and mission: “ONR Transport carries out a range of regulatory activities to assure the safe transport of radioactive materials. Approval is granted for the designs of packages used to carry high-hazard radioactive materials to ensure they meet exacting international safety standards, and the packages are built to robust quality assurance plans, and are correctly used and maintained. Regulation is also carried out through a programme of targeted, risk-informed inspections and engagement with duty holders which may lead to interventions. Inspections examine the management systems utilised by duty holders, as well as compliance with safety and security legal requirements. ONR Transport inspects duty holders across nuclear; non-nuclear; and industrial, medical and carrier sectors.” (


The then energy minister Andrea Leadsom told Parliament on 13 April 2016 that “Details of safety events involving the transport of nuclear material both by rail and on the strategic road network can be found in the following report: Events reported to Nuclear Safety Regulator 2001-2015: This details in no less than 3,866 events of varying degree of significance, including those reported under the Carriage of Dangerous Goods and use of Transportable Pressure Equipment Regulations 2009’ for the transport of radioactive materials. The report notes “the incorporation of radioactive material transport regulation into ONR (in October 2011) correlates with the increase in the number of transport events reported to ONR since that time.” ( emphasis added)  (



Malicious threats to nuclear material transports

One of the key issues for UK nuclear regulators and policy makers is around the transportation of radioactive materials and their protection from a malicious attack.

Many transports of radioactive materials involve mildly radioactive material such as

pharmaceuticals, ores, low-level radioactive waste, and consumer products containing

radionuclides (e.g., watches, smoke detectors). However, increasing quantities of much more radioactive - and thus hazardous - nuclear materials such as irradiated (―spent‖) nuclear fuel and fresh, un-irradiated nuclear fuel, including some containing plutonium (in so-called MOX or a mixed oxide plutonium-uranium mix), is due to be transported around the UK as the existing nuclear programme is wound down and decommissioned; and a new build programme of over a dozen new reactors distributed around the country is planned.

High-level nuclear waste materials, such as spent nuclear fuel, are transported in very heavy, robust containers, which must meet extremely demanding standards to ensure their integrity in the most severe conditions, including sabotage.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US caused the German government to reassess the security of its nuclear power plants and spent fuel storage facilities. The

Reaktorsicherheitskommission (RSK), the German Nuclear Safety Commission, issued a statement recommending that an analysis be carried out on each plant to assess its vulnerability to September 11-type attacks. Plant operators assert that terrorist attacks are a general risk of society and should be


A series of tests simulating terrorist attacks on transportation casks were done in Germany, France, the United States (for the German government), and Switzerland (for the Swiss government). Additional tests may have been done that are not publicly acknowledged.


As long ago as 1979–1980, at the German Army facility in Meppen, a ―hollow charge‖ (i.e., shaped charge) weapon was fired at a ductile cast iron plate and fuel assembly dummy to simulate a CASTOR cask. The cask plate was perforated but release fractions from the fuel assembly were not examined. From this experiment, the German government concluded that the wall thickness of the cask should not be less than 300 millimetres.


Other tests were carried out at the Centre d‘Etude de Gramat in France in 1992 on behalf of the BMU involving shaped charges directed at a CASTOR cask filled with nine fuel element dummies  A256 (NB142) with depleted uranium. The shaped charge perforated the cask and penetrated fuel elements. This damaged the fuel and resulted in the release of fuel particles from the cask. (emphaisis added)


(NFLA Policy Briefing 145: Nuclear security concerns – how secure is the UK civil nuclear sector? May 2016;


Britain’s equivalent was a spectacular staged crash by the former Central Electricity Generating Board  (CEGB) on 17 July 1984, with the aim of publicly demonstrating the integrity of the  SNF transport  flask. It gained n massive immediate  positive publicity at the time. But the technical report on the  crash was published far away from those it  affected, at a nuclear material packaging and transport conference held in Las Vegas, where the damage done to the flask was admitted

As Trevor Dutton of OveArup engineering partners wrote in his article “Spent fuel transport: it’s probabilistically safe “ in a special edition of Nuclear Engineering International in 1993 “Some further problems remain, in particular the paucity of data relating to serious saccidents as well as the lack of generally accepted reference risk criteria.”


That worryingly remains the case


Nuclear flask train crash simulation


The most spectacular trial at the Old Dalby Test Track was the Central Electricity Generating Board Nuclear Flask crash test, which took place on 17th July 1984. The collision was a public demonstration staged to dispel fears that a nuclear waste flask could not survive the impact of a rail crash. Needless to say the flask survived intact unlike the locomotive.

Two redundant Class 46 locomotives were selected (in case one broke down). These were 46009 and 46023, which was not used and eventually cut up. The unfortunate 46009 was coupled to four Mk1 coaches and set off from the northern end of the line with the controls set and no-one in the cab. This was achieved by means of an extra brake isolating cock situated on the sole bar of the loco next to the footsteps. Once everything was set in the cab, the power handle was opened and the driver baled out and closed the brake cock from the ground - and away she went!

The site chosen was just to the south of Old Dalby control centre, where the main test line was cut and slewed across into the old headshunt area of the former Army base exchange sidings. Extensive grandstands were erected for the invited guests and members of the press and the area was equipped with security fencing and patrolled by guards. This fencing survives to this day in some areas around Old Dalby.

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