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Spooks vanquish phantom menace

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The UK government has been running a £7m programme aimed at ridding the UK of surplus "radioactive sources" which could be used in a dirty bomb terror attack, according to reports.

According to the Environment Agency, running the disposal programme in cooperation with the police and domestic spook service MI5, there were believed to be 11,000 surplus radioactive items at large initially. Since the initiative began in 2005, 9,000 sources have been processed.

"People in the UK should sleep easier, just that bit easier, knowing that there aren't these sources out there," the Agency's Chris Williams told the BBC.

Radioactive sources, in this context, means large numbers of basically innocuous items used by hospitals, industry and other organisations. At the high end, examples would include canisters of powdered Caesium-137 used in radiotherapy equipment. At the low end, things such as luminous watches or compasses often qualify as "radioactive" for this purpose.

Realistically, the danger from even the most significant of these items is no more than that attaching to common-or-garden hazmat materials like pesticides, industrial cleaners, mercury, old car batteries etc.

Severe health consequences can result from all these other things if people are foolish or ignorant enough to rub them or their contents on their skin or ingest them, and this is also true of radioactive-source materials. Famously, hundreds of Brazilians living near a rubbish dump did both with discarded Caesium-137 powder in 1987, and there were several deaths.

However, normal hazmats aren't subject to the almost insanely rigorous disposal and handling regs which govern radiological materials. As a result, they can be disposed of legally at reasonable cost, and people typically do. With radiologicals, on the other hand, the huge cost of disposal by the book often prompts organisations to simply stockpile things when their useful life is over.

These stockpiles are these days seen as "a security threat", according to Mr Williams. This is because of the largely fictitious dangers of the so-called "dirty bombs" which might be made from surplus radioactives. As a result, MI5 and the environment agency have decided to step in and handle the disposal at the taxpayers' expense.

It's also hoped that the free disposals will prevent illegal dumping.

The programme was sternly criticised as being misleading by former Greenpeace activist Shaun Burnie, whose comments were solicited for some reason by the BBC. Burnie went so far as to describe the medical detritus, old luminous dials etc as "nuclear waste". He said that many of the items, rather than being actually disposed of, would merely be stored in perpetuity at government expense. It was impossible to meaningfully dispose of such stuff, according to Burnie.

"As the government well knows, they have no long-term safe option on the table for the disposal of nuclear waste," Mr Burnie said.

"To pretend otherwise is dangerously misleading."

Burnie, who holds a master's degree from the famous War Studies* department at King's College London, spent 16 years at Greenpeace insisting that reprocessing spent reactor fuel is unbelievably dangerous; he would say that. (If fuel were routinely reprocessed, the nuclear power industry would be a lot more financially viable and would produce a lot less waste for a given amount of power. People who are against nuclear power pretty much have to be against reprocessing.)

Whatever your feelings about the nuclear power industry, it really is dangerously misleading to pretend that caesium-137 or the like is in the same class as spent reactor fuel. And it's also dangerously misleading to suggest that it might be seriously useful - more useful than petrol, say - in a terrorist attack. Bigging up the dirty bomb threat like this is what gives the technique its only effect - that of irrational fear and hysteria.

Still, £7m is chickenfeed in terms of UK gov money. And at least the environment lads and the spooks didn't go about trumpeting about the deadly dirty bomb stockpiles which can't ever be got rid of.

The Beeb did that on their own. ®

*At other universities this department is often called "peace studies", "strategic studies" or "political history". It is never called anything like "nuclear engineering".

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