Thursday, 2 Feb 2023

Uranium seizure at Heathrow indicates ‘dry run for a dirty bomb’

Iran: Uranium stockpile found to be ’16 times over limit’

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Cargo contaminated by uranium and seized by counterterrorism police at London’s Heathrow Airport may have been a “dry run” prior to a bid to smuggle a so-called “dirty bomb” into the UK, a security expert has warned. Will Geddes suggests the mere presence of traces of the radioactive element indicated something “nefarious” was happening.

Meanwhile, Dr Arnab Basu, chief executive of nuclear detection specialist, Kromek Group plc, described the news as “both alarming and reassuring”, highlighting as it does the risks and the systems in place to spot such hazardous material.

The Metropolitan Police force said Wednesday that “a very small amount of contaminated material was identified after routine screening within a package incoming to the UK” on December 29. It said the force’s Counterterrorism Command is investigating. There have been no arrests so far.

Mr Geddes told Express.co.uk: “Uranium is not one of those readily available materials anybody can just get their hands on. That in itself tells me something nefarious is going on here.

“Secondly there’s been news that the airlines are going to drop security restrictions for people taking liquid on board because the technology has advanced significantly since those rules were first engaged.”

What that demonstrated was that technology was “beginning to win now” in terms of detecting various different substances, particularly such dangerous materials, whether they be part of a larger bomb or IED.

Counter-terrorism would not reveal a great deal because it was an ongoing investigation, he stressed, pointing out that the package had reportedly come from Pakistan, an environment “that is not very well controlled”, meaning such materials could potentially be sourced from there.

Referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons but ditched by the US in 2019, he continued: “The fact that it was reportedly sent to an Iranian firm could connect a lot of dots in terms of the nuclear arms development in the country since Donald Trump ditched the agreement.

“This is speculation on my part, but it smacks of a dry-run operation to me. It was a very, very small, almost undetectable, amount.

“If you are trying to move contraband through an environment like a drug dealer would, you may courier it through certain channels to see which ones work before moving larger amounts.”

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Mr Geddes added: “If the uranium is unrefined, it would be used in a nuclear facility, if it is refined it would be more likely to be used in a dirty bomb. If it is refined that would indicate a malicious device of some sort.

“The dirty bomb threat is certainly on the radar in terms of a viable threat. It’s not common, I have never seen this kind of incident happen before. If this was on a commercial plane it would provide an aviation arc of attack.”

“If this was a dry run, the recipient may not have necessarily been linked. They could have just been randomly selected to receive the test run.”

Relations between Iran and the UK have been strained for decades, and Mr Geddes suggested it was reasonable to suspect their involvement.

He explained: “Iran and the UK… there is still this issue of the debt and the situation with Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We are very much aligned with the US, it’s an us against them situation.

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“We are a significant party in the less pro-Iran alliance than other countries.”

“In terms of counter-terrorism, the reassuring thing is that we have been able to intercept it. That may dissuade whoever it was from trying to move uranium into the UK again. There is also the possibility that they were trying to move the material into the US via the UK.”

Dr Basu added: “News of the detection of uranium in the cargo of a plane arriving at Heathrow Airport is both alarming and reassuring.

“On the one hand, it is a timely reminder of the global risk that nuclear material could fall into the hands of individuals set on causing harm, while at the same time, providing reassurance that here in the UK, we have the infrastructure in place to detect the movement of such materials.:

In a world where nuclear energy will form part of the solution to supply issues, the risk of radioactive material falling into the wrong hands was growing, Dr Basu said.

He continued: “Likewise, the conflict in Ukraine has exposed the vulnerability of existing nuclear power stations to damage and access to dangerous materials. We must not rest on our laurels in approaching national and global security.”

The BBC reported that the uranium was in a shipment of scrap metal.

Police Commander Richard Smith said the amount of contaminated material was “extremely small and has been assessed by experts as posing no threat to the public.”

He said it “does not appear to be linked to any direct threat,” but the investigation continues.

He added: “We will of course, follow every avenue to see what the background to this was and satisfy ourselves that there’s no further threat.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman declined to comment on an ongoing police operation.

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