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US nukes deployed in Britain in 1980s "posed safety threat": New Scientist

AFP | July 12, 2007

Nuclear-tipped cruise missiles deployed at a US base in Britain in the 1980s could have exposed millions of people to plutonium inhalation if an accident occurred, the British weekly New Scientist says.

A warning from the government's Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) also said the base was the worst possible site for the missiles, according to top-secret documents that New Scientist says were released to it by the Ministry of Defence under freedom of information laws.

Between 1983 and 1991, the United States stationed 96 cruise missiles at Greenham Common, in the southeastern county of Berkshire, to help offset a Soviet buildup in medium-range nuclear missiles.

The deployment sparked the longest protest in Britain against nuclear weapons, including a women's encampment that stayed for 19 years, ending long after the base was closed.

In reports in 1980, AWRE scientists calculated the "plutonium dispersion hazard" if a stored warhead caught fire or accidentally exploded.

Of the 11 bases in England being considered for the missiles, Greenham Common was "the worst site which has been examined," as it was closest to large population centres.

"If one warhead were to detonate, it is possible that the other seven warheads in the storage cell could be engulfed in the fire which is virtually certain to ensue from the rupture of the missiles' fuel tanks," they said.

If so, 10 million people across southern England, including the population of London, could be exposed to an "inhalation hazard" from plutonium, one of the most toxic substances in the world.

In two assessments, though, AWRE deemed the risk was "acceptable," the New Scientist report, carried in next Saturday's issue, says.

New Scientist quoted the defence ministry as saying, "There has never been an accident involving nuclear weapons in the UK that has put the public at risk. The MoD [ministry of defence] maintains the highest standards of safety and security during the storage or transport of nuclear weapons."

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