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Outcry as border guards seize British 'dirty bomb' lorry heading for Iran

London Sunday Mail | July 24, 2006
By JASON LEWIS

Border guards seized a British lorry on its way to make a delivery to the Iranian military - after discovering it was packed with radioactive material that could be used to build a dirty bomb.

The lorry set off from Kent on its way to Tehran but was stopped by officials at a checkpoint on Bulgaria's northernborder with Romania after a scanner indicated radiation levels 200 times above normal.

The lorry was impounded and the Bulgarian Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NPA) was called out.

On board they found ten lead-lined boxes addressed to the Iranian Ministry of Defence. Inside each box was a soil-testing device, containing highly dangerous quantities of radioactive caesium 137 and americium-beryllium.

The soil testers had been sent to Iran by a British firm with the apparent export approval of the Department of Trade and Industry.

Last night, the head of the Bulgarian NRA, Nikolai Todorov, said he was shocked that devices containing so much nuclear material could be sold so easily.

He said: "The devices are highly radioactive - if you had another 90 of them you would be able to make an effective dirty bomb."

And a spokesman for the Bulgarian customs office, said: "The documentation listed the shipment as destined for the Ministry of Transport in Tehran, although the final delivery address was the Iranian Ministry of Defence.

"According to the documentation they are hand-held soil-testing devices which were sent from a firm in the United Kingdom."

A leading British expert last night said the radioactive material could easily be removed and used to construct a dirty bomb.

Dr Frank Barnaby from the Oxford Research Group, said: "You would need a few of these devices to harvest sufficient material for a dirty bomb. Americium-beryllium is an extremely effective element for the construction of a dirty bomb as it has a very long half-life, but I would be amazed to find it out on the street.

"I don't know how you would come by it as it is mainly found in spent reactor-fuel elements and is not at all easy to get hold of. I find it very hard to believe it is so easily available in this device."

Senior Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay called for the Government to tighten up export controls to prevent the Iranian military getting its hands on nuclear material.

He said: "The Prime Minister has accused the Iranian Government of sponsoring international terrorism, yet his officials are doing nothing to prevent radioactive material which has an obvious dual use being sold to their military."

Little control

The discovery will add to fears about the lack of control over the sale of nuclear material to so-called 'rogue states' which the Government claims sponsor international terrorism, particularly as it comes at a time when Iran is ignoring international calls to halt its nuclear programme.

The case has echoes of the arms-to-Iraq affair during which the DTI approved exports of apparently innocent civilian equipment to Saddam Hussein that was then used to build weapons.

Mr MacKinlay added: "Our export controls are a mess.

"The Iranians are resourceful and sophisticated and, just as we saw with Saddam Hussein in the past, this is just the sort of method they would use to get their hands on the equipment they need for their supposedly banned weapons programmes."

Andrew Maclean, a director of Kent-based Orient Transport Services, which was paid by another unnamed British firm to transport the radioactive devices to Iran, said the shipment was perfectly legal.

He said: "We had a letter from the DTI confirming that no export licence was needed to send these items to the Iranians.

"We also alerted customs officials about the goods we were transporting before they left the UK and the truck carried all the appropriate warning symbols to alert officials and the emergency services of what it was carrying."

Last night a DTI spokesman confirmed: "Exporters do not need a licence to transport this sort of material to Iran. It is not covered by our export controls."

In August last year there was a similar incident when a Turkish truck carrying a ton of zirconium silicate supplied by a British firm was stopped by Bulgarian customs at the Turkish border on its way to Tehran, after travelling from Britain, through Germany and Romania, without being stopped.

Zirconium is used in nuclear reactors to stop fuel rods corroding and can also be used as part of a nuclear warhead. The metal can be extracted from zirconium silicate and its trade is usually tightly controlled.


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